Loaded Middle East Table

The World Trade Center blast put sympathy for the Palestinian cause - and for peace prospects - in limbo

THE see-saw has tipped again in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In this daunting and relentless battle where there can be no victor, it seemed a few weeks ago that the Palestinians had scored a victory. The expellees banished to South Lebanon's raw, winter hills had received wide international sympathy and firm United Nations support.

Israel's illegal and hasty purge of the men it claimed were dangerous Islamic fundamentalists of the Hamas organization, had once more galvanized together the people of the Arab world, from Africa's Magreb to Saudi Arabia. Israel, meanwhile had been less able to convince the world the expellees were a dangerous religious force.

Just when it seemed that Israel might soon have to recant and return these 415 men to their land and families, all prospect of this outcome vanished. Instead of a heartening announcement from the State Department of breakthroughs, what we heard was a shattering explosion at the World Trade Center in the heart of New York's financial district. Quickly, everyone's mind became focused on the alleged involvement of militant Muslims in what is described as the worst terrorist act on United States soil.

Warren Christopher, the new US secretary of state and successor to James Baker III who had committed the US to finding a Middle East peace formula, barely had time to brief the president after his Middle East tour. Headlines were boldly announcing the threat to America of Islam. Fear of Islam rages from TV screens across the land. And we learn the primary and still only suspect is a young Arab of Palestinian origin.

Next, within days of the FBI's confirmation that Arab Muslims were the likely terrorists in the World Trade Center bombing, we hear affirmations from Israeli leaders. Their suspicions of the Hamas members were now justified they say. Surely Americans now comprehend Israel's feelings. The public mood toward the 415 expelled Muslims changed.

Media alarm over Islam, which it links to the suspected bombing agent, Mohemmed Salameh, is so strong that the anticipated Middle East peace talks may again be derailed. Today, therefore, the Israelis have the advantage in this never ending see-saw. This week, they may feel it is their victory. Their military occupation resumes unnoticed in the world, and their illegal detention of two Americans of Palestinian origin, holds.

Recently, we had yet another episode involving Israelis and Palestinians killing each other in the streets. Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, already armed, are pressing for wider rights to shoot Palestinians they decide are threatening. Only one thing can result: further deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations, and possibly massacres of unprecedented proportions. If negotiations fail to restart soon - forget about concrete results; we have to see the parties talking again - pessimists and ext remists will be proven right. Groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and religious-based organizations like Hamas will win more supporters. In the Israeli camp, the militant Likud Party members who say they will never give an inch, will also be fortified.

Israel is about to receive the first check from Washington in its $10 billion loan guarantee. This reopens the gates for immigrants from Russia and helps finance the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. It may also make the Israeli economy less dependent on Palestinian cheap labor.

One result of all of this will be to further weaken Palestinian communities, economically and morally. At the same time, say Palestinians, their past sacrifices have been too great to abandon the struggle. Their "land is more treasured now than five years before," they assert. They are unlikely to be placated with anything else but ultimate statehood. On its side, Israel cannot put every Palestinian in prison, although refugee camps, housing hundreds of thousands, are today virtual prisons. Nor can Israe l go on militarizing its society and paying the enormous moral and economic costs of occupation.

Where are the voices urging peace? Jewish peace groups here and in Israel emerged with the outburst of the intifada in 1985. They joined voices calling for a two-state treaty with Palestinians. Over the years these have weakened, leaving all initiative with politicians. This puts greater pressure on Washington. The US and possibly the UN bear the responsibility of ensuring that peace talks resume, and progress. First, flexibility from Israel's side is called for. This may win for the Palestinian conegoti ators important credibility among the beseiged and occupied population. With that, support for those advocating an abstract or militant religious ideological strategy can be reduced.

Finally, we must think of the other Arab states involved in peace negotiations: Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Each has a lot to gain from a peace treaty but they too are stalled.

It is clear now that none will buy any bilateral treaty with Israel. As each has indicated, their peace is locked into a comprehensive just settlement that includes the Palestinians. Thus obstacles between Palestinians and Israelis delay peace with other Arab neighbors. They cannot be expected to maintain a status quo, meanwhile.

Lebanon's resistance movement against Israel in the occupied south is growing, further complicating negotiations over the south; Beirut's strength as an independent negotiator is partly dependent on regional stability. Jordan's too. And Syria, which seemed so ready to talk with Israel a year ago, may change its mind.

An entire host of regional factors are at play - Islamic nationalism, new leaders, economic developments. Leaders who allow the bombing in New York and rumors about Muslim dangers in the US to deter them, may later find themselves with new and real dangers in their path.

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