NOW that the Gulf war is over and the attention of policymakers and pundits is turned to the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict, the Bush administration will not lack for advice on how to handle this dispute. Unless new proposals tackle the root issues of that conflict, however, and not merely its symptoms, they are unlikely to fare better than the numerous plans that preceded them. Secretary of State Baker has been floating a ``two-track approach.'' Along one path would move negotiations between Israel and the Arab states to establish permanent peace. It would run parallel to another track of discussions between Israel and some ``phantom'' Palestinians who, while not supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), would nevertheless be credible representatives.
President Bush and Mr. Baker would be well advised, however, that a two-track process can move only as fast as the slower of the two tracks. And judging from the failure of past attempts at talks between Israel and the Palestinians, almost invariably because of Israeli intransigence, the administration can be sure of only one outcome: a stalled peace process.
Despite the new gloss put on this strategy by Baker in recent weeks, the concept itself is of Israeli origin. It disingenuously aims at giving Israel the peace with the Arabs that it desperately wants while allowing it to dissipate its talks with the Palestinians into an interminable process of delays. The attraction of such an approach to Israel is understandable.
What is less understandable, however, is why such a scheme would appeal to a United States administration that has committed itself to the principle of land for peace and to an equitable solution in Palestine.
Unless meaningful progress is achieved on resolving the issue of Palestine, Arab states, no matter their current annoyance with the PLO, will remain reluctant to move toward peace with Israel. Camp David stands out as a counter-example precisely because it is so unique. Since 1978, no other Arab state has followed Egypt in making peace with Israel, and none will, as long as Israel persists in its occupation and dispossession of Palestinians.
Two essential features of the Palestine problem must be dealt with simultaneously - Israel's continued occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian dispossession and dispersion.
The mass rebellion in the occupied territories, now in its fourth year, has left no doubt in anybody's mind, including probably the majority of Israelis, that the occupation is simply unsustainable and that Israel would have to give up those areas in any future settlement. Questions may still arise, but only in respect of timing and method.
As for Palestinian dispersion, recent tragic events affecting the lives of Palestinians in Kuwait only serve to highlight the vulnerability of the more than 3 million stateless Palestinians dispersed throughout the Middle East. Except for Jordan, where most Palestinians have full rights of citizenship, Palestinians have remained unrepatriated and unassimilated.
IT is indeed incomprehensible that in the age of political freedom and national self-determination (so universally applauded in the Baltics and in Eastern Europe), nearly 6 million Palestinians remain blocked from fulfilling their most elementary national right - the right to a free and unencumbered existence in a secure and recognized sovereign entity of their own.
A state in which hitherto dispossessed Palestinians may reside and to which Palestinians everywhere may belong would go a long way toward finally laying to rest the tragedies that have fed local conflicts in the Middle East over the past five decades. Half-measures and partial solutions simply won't do.
What is needed, and what is required of the Bush administration, is a new and bold approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. One that sidesteps murky proposals dealing with an aimless ``peace process'' and focuses instead on clearly stated ``peace objectives.''
THESE must derive from Mr. Bush's forthright statement before the recent Joint Session of the United States Congress, namely the principle of land for peace. More precisely the objectives of a wider peace between Arabs and Israelis may be stated as: (a) ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands, which could be phased to coincide with specific steps taken by the Arab states to end the state of war and move toward peace; (b) the exercise by the Palestinians of their right of self-determinati on in their own homeland (under international supervision and taking into account timing and other procedural exigencies); (c) the consummation of comprehensive peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors; and (d) an international conference to ratify the peace agreements and to institute effective mechanisms and procedures, through the United Nations.
In light of Mr. Bush's proven ability at building international consensus and giving it force through the UN machinery, the most effective approach would be to seek a new UN Security Council Resolution that goes beyond 242 and 338 (which after all were designed to end hostilities and not consolidate the peace). The new resolution would incorporate the above principles and address the specific requirements of peace arrangements in Palestine. Mr. Bush could go even further and specify a timetable for achi eving these objectives.
From its singularly dominant position in the region, the US has acquired a unique responsibility for the future shape of the area. This is Mr. Bush's challenge, and his opportunity to achieve a just and durable peace in the Middle East.