ONE of the key barriers to the achievement of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the inability of the United States to assume the role of an effective mediator. Whether it is because the US feels more comfortable with a country like Israel or finds the Arabs truculent and unpredictable, the fact remains that we have generally taken sides in the controversy and abdicated our peacemaker responsibilities through our partiality. The most important decision the Bush administration has to make in this connection is to determine whether or not the US really does want to be an effective peacemaker. If so, the next question is whether it is willing in the context of the newly established US-PLO dialogue to define and consistently pursue a policy designed to create the foundations of genuine Arab-Israeli peace.
George Bush will not have to look far to find examples of the kind of policy that is needed. Past Republican administrations have already laid down the guidelines for a constructive approach to the Middle East problem. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these was the Rogers Plan of Dec. 9, 1969, the first US peace proposal since the 1967 war. It was based on the principle of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, with ``insubstantial alterations required for mutual security'' in exchange for guaranteed security and a contractual peace with the Arabs. Though never carried out, the ``territory-for-peace'' formula embodied in the Rogers Plan became an integral part of the peace concept. It was reasserted in the Reagan Plan of Sept. 1, 1982, which referred to the ``moral imperative'' of America's commitment to the peace process and to the importance of ``negotiations involving an exchange of territory for peace.''
The main problem surrounding the Reagan Plan was that it was never transformed from a verbal initiative into concrete policy. For example, the President's position that ``the withdrawal provision of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza,'' never became a focus of active diplomacy. Nor was anything done to prevent a related comment by US Secretary of State George Shultz on Feb. 24, 1983, from lapsing into oblivion. ``It must be true,'' he said, ``that one of the principal reasons why we have so much difficulty with peace in the Middle East is that we haven't been able to find the answer to the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.''
So the problem with US Middle East policy has not been one of misguided intentions so much as the seeming inability of successive administrations to follow their own guidelines to a logical conclusion. The circumstances of the current situation therefore confront the incoming administration with crucial decisions. The most important is to determine how to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and how to convince Israel that a negotiated peace establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is not incompatible with its security requirements.
The recent events represent an important breakthrough in the peace process. The Bush administration will therefore have to undertake the delicate task of promoting negotiations that are at the same time procedurally workable and addressed to the basic issues. Considering the volatility of Middle East politics, it would be helpful if the new administration were to devise a number of alternatives designed to ensure flexibility and preclude stalemates.
It should be prepared, for example, to utilize a variety of possible formats for negotiations, including an international conference, a trilateral US-Israeli-PLO approach, or direct talks between the PLO and Israel. There should also be no preconditions that might make it difficult for the immediate parties to continue the dialogue.
There is a sense among a majority of informed observers of the Middle East that this is a particularly auspicious moment to achieve peace. This is not only because the PLO has adopted a more moderate position, but also because the Soviet Union has demonstrated a cooperative attitude toward resolving the conflict. It is therefore incumbent on the Bush administration to persuade Israel to enter into negotiations with the PLO.
In preparing a peace strategy designed to make the most of the current favorable circumstances, these points should be taken into consideration:
A durable peace based on justice and equity is, and always has been, in the national interest of the US.
A nonpartisan initiative by the US would be seen in the Middle East as evidence that a ``kinder, gentler America'' had emerged.
While it is to be expected that Israel will try to obstruct a two-state solution, such a solution remains the only realistic and fair way of resolving the conflict. This was the original intention of the General Assembly Partition Resolution in 1947, and the fact remains that if Israel wants the Palestinians and the Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist, then Israel must recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist. In dealing with Israel, therefore, the US must be firm in its commitment to a fair solution and to its own principles.
This would in no sense mean forsaking Israel, but rather creating a situation in which Israel can live in peace and security and establish a normal and constructive relationship with its neighbors.