ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's success in winning American support for his overtures to speed up the Middle East peace process has placed Arab governments and the Palestinians under pressure to reciprocate or be blamed for the failure of the Arab-Israeli talks.
In the view of Arab officials and analysts, the Arabs are already standing on low ground, and making any immediate concessions would undermine their negotiating position.
"Mr. Rabin is offering us something that falls short of what we view as a prerequisite for peace in return for the beginning of the normalization of relations with the Arab world - an objective that should result from a solution based on exchanging land for peace," one Palestinian official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
US Secretary of State James Baker III, on what seems likely to be his last tour of the region, has called for an end to the Arab economic boycott of Israel in return for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
[At press time there was no official Arab reaction to reports that Baker will leave his position to head up President Bush's reelection campaign. But Jordanian officials, voicing a view held in other Arab capitals, say privately that they do not want Baker to leave the secretary's post, fearing a loss in momentum. Many in the Arab world also want Bush to be reelected so that the peace effort will be maintained in the long run.
"The most worrying thing which would change the whole scenario is the prospect of (Democratic presidential nominee Bill) Clinton in the White House. People would go back to Square 1," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, who directs Passia, an East Jerusalem-based Palestinian think tank.]
The issue of Israeli settlements, built on Arab land to absorb Jewish immigrants, has been a major sticking point since the peace process was launched in Madrid last October. The outgoing Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir vigorously expanded the settlements, prompting the United States to suspend $10 billion in loan guarantees.
Mr. Rabin has ordered a halt on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but he has also indicated that the freeze will not apply to the Syrian Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and strategic points in the Jordan valley - part of his differentiation between "political" and "security" settlements.
Although Baker has implied that he does not agree with Rabin's classification, he still says the offer constitutes a major breakthrough that the Arabs should reciprocate.
But Arab officials, particularly Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians, are dismayed at what they view as Baker's endorsement of Rabin's approach, which seems to favor partial solutions instead of a comprehensive resolution based on the United Nations Security Council Resolutions that form the basis for the peace process. Resolutions 242 and 338 call for a withdrawal from Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967 in return for peace between Israel and its neighbors.
In a joint press conference with Baker on Tuesday, Jordan's King Hussein said that lifting the Arab boycott against Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze addressed only "a portion of the problem." The Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrians, according to Arab diplomats, are now wary that the Arabs will be forced to end the boycott prior to even a public Israeli commitment to the UN resolutions.
Arab negotiators also worry that Rabin will use his freeze offer to speed up an agreement with the Palestinians on some form of autonomy, Palestinian elections, and normalizing relations with Arab countries other than Egypt.
Although Arab officials are avoiding official comment, they seem undecided on the way Rabin's victory has made Egypt a major player in the peace process. Rabin's visit to Cairo was viewed in other Arab capitals with mixture of hope and alarm, according to Arab analysts: On one hand, Cairo could play a pivotal role in strengthening the Arab negotiating position; but Egypt, which is usually seen to toe the American line, could boost Israel's standing by warming its own relations with Israel and pressing fo r normalized ties.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has already announced that he would be ready to host a round of Arab-Israeli talks - a step that accedes to Israeli wishes to hold the negotiations in the region and contradicts Arab demands that talks should not be moved to the region until progress on Israeli territorial compromise was reached.
Despite their reservations, Arab governments and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have so far avoided an outright dismissal of Rabin's overtures. They worry that in accepting the partial freeze on settlements, they could undermine their own demands for an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And an acceptance of the Israeli classification of "political and security settlements" would undercut Palestinian demands for control of the land and its natural resources - since
the settlements that Rabin wants to keep would ensure Israeli control over water in the territories.
But by rejecting the Israeli offer, Arab officials fear, they could lose American support and miss a chance to stop Israeli expansion.
The Arabs are now expected to wait for a decision by the Palestinians on whether the focus of the next rounds of the peace talks will be Palestinian self-rule. "There are issues like settlements and Jerusalem that we do not agree [with Rabin] on. But let us discuss the first two points [self-rule and elections] to test Rabin, who has always talked about them," says PLO executive committee member Mahmoud Abbas.