THE United States must take a fresh look at the status of the Middle East peace talks.
For nine rounds the US has painstakingly sought to ascertain and define points of divergence and possible elements of agreement. The contentious aspects in the talks remain. In deference to power, Arab parties will most probably resume talks this month. But they will do so with a growing conviction that the process is being routinized, thus constituting a license for Israel to persist in procrastination and provocations.
This is perhaps the time for the US to signal that the UN should complete the task the US undertook after the Madrid Conference in October 1991.
So-called realists among all parties have assumed that flaws in US foreign policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict are built in and that by accepting US sponsorship the Arab parties acquiesced to this constraint: The agenda and terms of reference often are set by US administrations; the policy that ensues must be tailored to suit pro-Israel congressional biases; and although minor fluctuations in the degree of bias are at times discernable, any tilt toward evenhandedness is ultimately followed by apology or retraction.
Realists also argue that by dealing with the conflict solely within the context of US sponsorship, it is possible to modify US policy and its role in the process. The paradox: All parties expect to modify US policy in their respective directions. Yet expectations far exceed Washington's capacity to deliver.
The late Anwar Sadat's premise that "99 percent of the cards are in the US's hands" now dominates Arab realists' views. The immediate result is to put the Arab negotiating teams in a position where they must argue for their rights rather than ensure Israel's compliance with what the world community has recognized as Arabs' inalienable national rights. This form of Arab "realism" renders meekness a virtue, pleading a pattern, and endless patience a sign of moderation. It constitutes a prescription for an Arab rebellion against any peace option.
In these circumstances, Israel finds that it only has to repackage "proposals," "working papers," or "non-working papers" in order to buy time, consolidate Israel's control, and provide the US with the necessary semantic alterations to persuade Arab parties to continue in a process that nobody - not even Arab and American realists - believes can bring a substantive, credible, durable outcome.
In order to pursue a comprehensive and just peace, the portfolio of the nine rounds must become the principal text and basis for the UN Security Council to examine, study, and evolve in order to comply with its various relevant resolutions.
The US, with its built-in constraints, cannot unilaterally (with due respect to Russia's cosponsorship) manage the peace process. But it can and should continue to play the pivotal role to salvage the peace it assiduously seeks.
The US is no longer alone on Middle East issues in the United Nations. Since the Gulf war, its input in setting the agenda of the Security Council has been decisive. President Clinton has shown a readiness to delegate to the UN functions that were treated as exclusive US or Western prerogatives.
Even Israel can no longer consider the UN as "unfriendly" territory. Hence the arguments that were put forward by the US and Israel against UN intervention are no longer relevant, if they ever were. Who besides the UN Security Council can be expected to weigh in favor of an objective, fair, and precise interpretation of its own resolutions, which form the basis of the nine rounds and the entire US-sponsored peace process. Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, 425, and 799 await a collective interpretati on to allow speedy implementation. To leave the UN Security Council out of this longstanding regional conflict undermines the prospects of peace in the Middle East while making it easier for future violators of international law, UN resolutions, and human rights, to defy the world community's will and commitments.
One fundamental issue blocks any consequential step toward resolving this conflict: Israel does not acknowledge, let alone recognize, that it is an occupying power in territories it captured in June 1967. While the US considers these territories occupied, it refrains from translating its judgment into policy. By entrusting the UN with the responsibility to address and resolve this conflict, the US will, among other things, bring its policy closer to its judgements on the Middle East. Only then can the US
introduce the level of consistency and balance necessary to speed the resolution of this conflict.
Some in the US, especially pro-Israel groups, might consider this recourse a "failure," or at least a setback. Israel initially would put up a vigorous campaign against such a recourse to the UN. It will contrive paranoiac scenarios about "ganging up against Israel." Even those who might favor greater UN involvement will try to invoke the threat of a rightist Likud takeover.
ISRAEL must be expected to oppose because its violations and behavior will be subject to credible scrutiny, and its defiance of international law will be checked. Israel's ability to confront will diminish, making it easier to persuade or pressure it to comply with the UN resolutions. Being the exception to the rule of law will cease as the cost of its intransigence increases. While the US will continue to underwrite Israel's secure existence, within the context of the UN it will be freed from domestic p ressure to underwrite Israel's excesses.
Arab patience should not be taken for granted. True, some Arab parties are satisfied with the present pace. They consider that American unilateral and direct involvement in the peace process ensures a continued protection for them and their regimes. Even so, Arabs need the UN to protect the people under occupation. This must entail a UN-observer presence in the occupied territories, besides enabling UNIFIL in South Lebanon to carry out its mandate unimpeded and uninterrupted.
Some may see the proposal to shift the peace process to the UN Security Council as totally "unrealistic." More controversial, and dangerously so, is to continue relying exclusively on Washington's flawed policy. It is well motivated, but haphazardly executed, if not deliberately paralyzed.
The US will be doing the aggrieved parties a great favor by enabling the UN to render them its ward pending a comprehensive resolution of the region's agony in a manner that will heal the wounds, and recognize and secure the legitimate rights of those whose rights have been denied. Once again, the US is called upon not only to be a superpower, but to be a great power.