PRESIDENT BUSH may have the chance to achieve a major breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the absence of a crisis of war, the Reagan administration permitted the conflict to take its own course. To be sure, Israel was not threatened, the Arab states were far more concerned with Iran and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism than with Israel, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace removed the option of a major war. Moreover, the Soviet Union, during the same period, was bogged down in Afghanistan.
As the Reagan era waned, however, the political landscape in the Middle East was changing dramatically. The war between Iran and Iraq ended. Jordan disengaged from the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian uprising attained a vital political thrust, forcing the Palestine Liberation Organization to reassess its position.
PLO recognition of Israel, its acceptance of UN Resolution 242 (calling for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories in return for the right to live in peace within secure borders), and its renunciation of terrorism, followed by US recognition of the PLO, have created a new political equation. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been reduced to its principle component - the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
President Bush has inherited the historic opportunity to leave his mark by translating this new political climate into a real chance for peace.
He must begin with the premise that a lasting solution to the conflict must satisfy the national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. US commitment to Israel's security and well-being must be reaffirmed publicly, clearly, and unequivocally. The administration must rally the support of Congress and engage the political leadership of both parties in the Mideast peace process.
Beyond that, the US and Israel should develop a clear understanding of their positions and reach, at a minimum, an agreement on procedural matters and the parameters of the negotiations.
A long transitional period - seven to 10 years - must be part of any solution. This will allow for the mutual confidence building that can provide the basis for a permanent settlement.
Fortified by an unconditional US commitment to its security, Israel could then be persuaded to adopt a more flexible stance toward the PLO. Israel understands that it can no longer maintain indefinite control over the territories. Nor can it expel, absorb, or crush the Palestinian people. Israel could also be persuaded that a dialogue with the PLO will not be to its detriment as long as the parameters have been established in advance through quiet diplomacy.
Concurrently, the US should make it crystal clear to the PLO that to be a legitimate negotiating partner, it must inhibit the continued terrorist activities of its splinter groups.
Although the US will have to play a pivotal role in mediating the conflict, it should encourage the USSR to influence its clients, Syria and the PLO, to show more flexibility. While the US should try to limit Soviet involvement, it must give the USSR enough elbow room to play a constructive role. Restoration of diplomatic relations between the Soviets and Israel must be a precondition, however, to Moscow's direct involvement in the future peace process.
Clearly, the time has come for George Bush to make it clear to Israel that as long as the PLO adheres to its public pronouncements (recognition of Israel, acceptance of UN Resolution 242, and renunciation of terrorism), it will be a party to the negotiations. The negotiations must be direct and free.
There will be no imposed solutions and no punitive action taken against any party that elects to abort the negotiations. UN Resolution 242 should provide the basis for the negotiations, and coexistence under separate political authority must be the objective.