MUCH of the current debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict has come to focus on the merits and demerits of a UN-sponsored international peace conference. The idea was proposed by the UN Conference on the Question of Palestine, held in Geneva in September 1983 and subsequently endorsed by a resolution of the General Assembly. The UN Secretary-General has been engaged in a wide-ranging consultation to determine the feasibility of convening such a conference. The result indicates widespread support for the idea. Unfortunately, the United States and Israel have emerged as its only opponents.
The main US argument against a Middle East international peace conference is that it would give the Soviets an opportunity for reentry in the Middle East and for involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The premise, sometimes spoken and sometimes implied, is that such a development would be harmful to US interests and inimical to the prospects of peace in the Middle East.
Even if we grant this argument, the validity of which is far from self-evident, the question still remains whether opposition to an international peace conference on the Middle East is conducive to the desired end. The following elements indicate otherwise:
The Soviet Union already has a presence in the Middle East. It is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict by virtue of having an interest in a region that is geographically close to it. Opposing the proposed conference excludes such countries as Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Nigeria rather than the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union is already involved by virtue of the fact that ever since the UN decreed the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Israel, the international community, including the Soviet Union, has played a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even Security Council Resolution 242, which the US has singled out as the proper framework for peace in the Middle East, owes its existence to Soviet support. US policy based on Resolution 242 -- which at the same time seeks to preclude the international forums and parties which created that resolution in the first place -- is obviously inconsistent. The Security Council is not just a cover to legitimize US policy. The US cannot expropriate its will and then discard it.
The involvement of the USSR in the Arab-Israeli conflict is to a large extent a response to US involvement. US military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel, which has reached the level of ``strategic cooperation,'' has produced an imbalance of power in the region which -- without a counterbalance -- is bound to lead to an Israeli diktat rather than a peace settlement. To avoid such a possibility, some Arab parties to the conflict have sought a Soviet role to modify the impact of America's policy.
These are the main ingredients of Soviet pressure in the Middle East and role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. An international peace conference on the Middle East is not the opportunity the Soviet Union needs. By including a broad spectrum of participants such a conference is likely to moderate the Soviet role in the region. This element, then, suggests the real reason for US opposition to such a conference -- it would similarly impact on US involvement (i.e., moderate and constrain it).
The US does not want its present role modified. It does not want the embarrassment of opposing reasonable and universal expectations of evenhandedness. The US (and Israel) have more than enough signals from the international community that a just and durable peace in the Middle East requires a moderation of Israel's ambitions and of US support for those ambitions. But Israel's achievement of its declared objectives -- the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and the preclusion of Palestinian self-determination -- and US ability to assist Israel with these objectives require that the international community be denied an effective participation in the peace process. That would be achieved by keeping a US monopoly over the management of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is the most compelling reason for the (undeclared) extension of the Monroe Doctrine to the Middle East. (Relying on the premise that Latin America was rightfully America's backyard, US President James Monroe in 1825 proclaimed the well-known ``Doctrine,'' which curtailed European presence and influence in Latin America and reserved such privileges to the United States.)
Israel's military preponderance in the Middle East and the undeniable lopsidedness of US policy vis-`a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict can lead only to the imposition of Israeli hegemony over the region, attained and maintained by coercion. This is the surest recipe for future conflict -- rather than a menu for a durable peace.
Muhammad Hallaj is director of the Palestine Research and Educational Center in Washington.