THE Arab parties have returned to peace talks with Israel in deference to US power rather than persuasion. This is due, in part, to the fact that the US views any small Israeli compliance as a major concession. It is further exacerbated by the fact that the US specifically puts the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, in a position where they must choose between the maximum Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will give and the minimum - nothing - the Likud Party will give. The maximum, which Israel n ow offers, is a set of nebulus proposals that reduce the recognized national rights of Palestinians to dubious municipal functions.
The US, by treating this as "progress," has pressured the aggrieved parties while practically shielding the violator of the fourth Geneva convention, the United Nations resolutions, and even US policy.
The Arab parties came to the talks at great risk to their credibility, effectiveness, and perhaps the durability of their leadership. The risk is, however, calculated. They need from the United States, not the habitual assurances of an active involvement, but a strategic vision that insures a feasible outcome. If the US conceptualizes the outcome it envisages, the peace process ceases to be "peace talks" and becomes peace negotiations. Besides, this strategic vision must be coterminous with what the UN h as prescribed in its supposedly binding resolutions.
To persist in repeating that UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 are the basis for the US-sponsored peace process, without being forthcoming as to their precise meaning, constitutes an American license for Israel to further procrastinate, delay, and derail. True, the Rabin government has not repeated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's assertion that withdrawal from Sinai constituted compliance, but neither has it provided any outline of what is considered "compliance."
This deliberate ambiguity is the product of an Israeli strategy to stall, to establish new facts on the ground, and to forestall the chance for any substantial recovery of Arab territories or to realize any legitimate national rights for the Palestinians.
The dilemma lies in the fact that Arab parties know this; the US knows this. What the US is doing is to blur this awareness so that the Israeli agenda unravels mildly instead of cruelly, gently instead of aggressively. Does this have to be the US role? I do not believe so. I think the US has a historical opportunity to put an end to this diplomatic charade and what is becoming an exercise in futility. If the promise of peace does not at least mitigate the injustices meted out to the Palestinians, a Pando ra's box will be opened that will render the region unstable and the prevalent discourse, as well as the ensuing acts, prone to preempt consequential negotiations.
There is a way out, but it entails boldness. The US should consider that the nine rounds of talks have laid the groundwork for understanding the issues at the root of the conflict. After the ninth round, the US should take the portfolio of the peace talks to the UN Security Council. That is where it belongs and that is where it will be resolved.
In order to induce the Palestinians to return to the peace talks, many Arab governments invested a great deal of their diminishing political credit. They were prompted to do so by the US, and while Israel remains adamant on the substantive issues, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently showed some understanding of the Palestinian dilemma.
In return for their participation, the Palestinians were promised alleviation of their collective pain, but not a corresponding promise of realizing their national rights.
With Arab governments weighing in and Israel hardening its repressive measures, the PLO took a calculated risk and joined the Arab consensus on the need to acquiesce to the American summons to further talks. While Rabin stated that no further deportation of Palistinians is envisaged, he affirmed that Israel retains the right to deport. This threatens to remain a time bomb inasmuch as it signals a continued Israeli claim on the occupied territories. Now that the talks have resumed, the US must prepare for
a contingency plan, which enables the UN to address this issue in accordance with its relevant resolutions.
The US is no longer isolated at the UN in respect to its views of the Middle East. Israel should no longer remain an exception to the rule of international law and UN resolutions.
In the most optimistic expectation, the ninth round will bring minor relief - such as the decision to allow 30 Palestinians, deported since 1967, to return - but no resolution, let alone a serious breakthrough. This means that the 10th round must have a collective sponsorship in the UN Security Council. This will safeguard the process, sustain the Arab establishment's credit, and provide the US further opportunity to demonstrate commitment to the UN. If this step is taken, the US will continue to play th e pivotal role as a great power but cease to play a unilateral role.