THE fog of war shrouds the Middle East, as before. The parties play the same old blind man's bluff as though they had the leisure to fumble around, activity in place of action, until something turns up. One exception is an emerging player, a new and violent Islamic extremist movement, Hamas, which profits from stagnation. The Clinton administration, new to the game, follows its predecessors in trying to escape a dilemma: supporting Israel while preserving its status as an impartial mediator. Mindful that
its interests extend far beyond Israel, Washington tries not to antagonize the huge community of Islamic states. They already accuse the United States of applying a double standard tilted against Muslims.
Israel seeks to regain the special American relationship which the hardline Shamir government effectively lost. Jerusalem wants American help in shaping the peace negotiations so as to retain maximum influence over the occupied territories. Israel plays for time. It has done little or nothing to improve the quality of life for the people of the territories.
Confidence-building measures, also promised, are invisible or nonexistent. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of the United Nations has been heard to bemoan the fact that his suggestions, in 10 points given to former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan at Camp David in 1978, have been ignored.
Arab states pursue their separate agendas under a veneer of Arab solidarity and loyalty to the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian people, disorganized and divided as ever, struggle nearly as hard to assert their identity against the Arab states as against Israel. Their frustration is the breeding ground for Hamas, an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Started five years ago, it was tolerated by the Israeli authorities as a backfire against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Well-financed and disciplined, Hamas rejects moderation as fruitless and a waste of time. It opposes peace talks, advocates eliminating Israel, and has killed Jews and Palestinians whom it accuses of collaborating with the occupation. It fights secular democracy.
Against this backdrop, Israel last December expelled 400 Palestinians and brushed aside condemnation by the UN.
The Clinton administration wants to shield Israel from punitive sanctions and to preserve the peace process; but it is not the cavalry rescue of the Reagan years. Washington pressed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to backtrack and, when he made a partial gesture of return, called it a breakthrough but expected more.
The Israel-America connection began in 1948 with warm support for the newly independent state. Washington was glad to see British imperial power go. Founded on the Old Testament, the US had strong sympathies with Biblical Israel and the victims of the Holocaust.
BENEVOLENT but more detached concern for Israel prevailed through the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. The 1967 war brought qualitative change. Largely instigated by Moscow, it caused Lyndon Johnson to draw a strategic conclusion. For the next 25 years, Israel was treated as an ally and given enormous quantities of weapons, money, and political help.
The cement of this intimate partnership began to erode as the Soviet Union crumbled and its influence faded. Coincidentally, Saddam's Iraq forced the US to protect the producers of Arab oil - and them to accept it. The US-Israel alliance appeared in a sharply altered light. Unnerved by Scud missile attacks, Israelis wanted to join the war and strike at Iraq. US objections to unwelcome intervention caused Israel to desist.
Israel has been reduced from strategic ally to sometimes awkward little friend. It is a changed role in a changed world and takes getting used to. Israel's future does not lie in keeping hostile neighbors at bay. It cannot be a strategic base for a US that has lost interest. It can come into its own as a small Levantine country with open borders, using its many assets to gain prestige and prosperity.
Five years of the Arab uprising, the intifada, have shown that military power is no solution. Instead, force has helped to build the Frankenstein's monster of Islamic extremism. It menaces not only Israel but also Arab states whose economic distress, population pressure, incompetence and corruption have made them vulnerable to demagoguery in the cloak of religious revival. In fact, Israel, moderate Arabs, and the PLO have a common deadly enemy in Islamist radicalism.
The US cannot be merely a spectator. It must point the way. Four years ago, Washington broke off talks with the PLO. There is every reason now to resume them, to set an example for the Israeli government and to hearten the moderate Arabs with a sign of American engagement. Yasser Arafat's fraternizing with Saddam could even help to bring out a more responsible Palestinian leadership. There is something to build upon.