THE 11th round of the Middle East peace process starts today amid developments that are not propitious for an equitable and durable settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, it is bewildering that the Arab parties, especially the Palestinians, did not request a postponement in view of the serious political and financial crisis in which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is engulfed.
The 11th round has been preceded by a concerted campaign to present the Gaza-Jericho option as a potentially dramatic breakthrough. This is disturbing and can lead to a chaotic rather than an orderly beginning of a transitional period. The proposal's deliberate ambiguity already is divisive among Palestinians and within Israel itself. In Israel, Likud opponents are clear that even the limited self-rule option is unacceptable. In the Palestinian community, the Gaza-Jericho option as offered by Shimon Pere s is being carefully scrutinized, as it should be. If the option is a partial application of a limited self-rule administrative formula, it is a dangerous trap that will emasculate Palestinians' legitimate right to a national patrimony. If, however, the Gaza-Jericho option constitutes the nucleus of a future sovereign Palestinian patrimony that includes East Jerusalem and all the occupied territories, then the Palestinians can live with this option; it would conform with a binding Palestinian National Counc il Resolution in 1972 that allows the PLO to establish a national authority over any liberated territory. The key test in this proposal is whether Gaza and Jericho are sovereign and whether the successor regime is a national authority. What Israel's Foreign Minister Peres carried in his visit to Secretary of State Warren Christopher last Saturday centers on this crucial question. It is hoped that the US will have secured a clarification before engaging the process on this option.
Arabs generally feel that the US is addicted to the process rather than committed to results. The process is deemed to be policy, at least for the foreseeable future. In this respect, the US has foreclosed the Arab parties' ability to seek legitimate redress. For example, the US thwarted Lebanon's complaint to the UN Security Council after Israel's attack on southern Lebanon forced an exodus of more than 300,000 civilians. This appears to comply with a US-Israeli understanding that the UN Security Counci l will be inoperative while the US-sponsored peace process is ongoing.
The 11th round of talks is taking place when the overall balance is decidedly weighed against the Arab participants: a strategic imbalance between Israel and the Arabs; an imbalance between the Arab parties (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine) to the peace talks and the rest of the Arab states; an imbalance among the Arab parties themselves; and an imbalance in the circumstances and functions of the participants.
The strategic imbalance is due to the US commitment to maintain Israel's military edge over any combination of Arab states. The imbalance between Arab participants and the rest of the Arab world stems from Egypt's inability to deter Israel's aggressive postures and behavior or reduce the US favoritism toward Israel. Meanwhile, the post-Gulf-war situation has reduced the levels of financial and political support to the Arab parties. For Palestinians, the cut in aid that followed PLO leader Yasser Arafat's
support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the war has reached crisis level.
In addition to these two imbalances and despite serious efforts at coordination, the Arab participants function within a context so asymmetrical that it renders their negotiating position vulnerable.
Syria is the strongest of the participants with the least at stake (the Golan Heights); the weakest party, the Palestinians, are wagering their very future as a people and their destiny as a national patrimony. Hence, while Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian delegates receive clear instructions as diplomats and functionaries, Palestinian delegates - mostly activists, intellectuals, and professionals - are plugged directly to their respective constituencies. These, in turn, are engaged in the daily struggles
of a people under oppressive occupation. For the last 10 rounds, the sponsors of the process were insensitive to these distinctions, while Israel sought to exploit them. Whether the sponsors, especially the United States, will seek to understand this condition during today's round remains to be seen.
If these imbalances are appreciated rather than exploited, the process can acquire credibility and will lead to measures that can restore confidence in its intent. In this respect, the sponsors must prepare to reengage the UN Security Council in the quest for a just and durable settlement.
The reserve of good will the US has throughout the Arab world would be further enhanced by this change of course. Persistence in a process that shows signs of fatigue and redundancy, however, can embolden groups that deem the process futile and see it as a means for Israel to buy time and to reinforce its claims for regional hegemony. This would be unfortunate; it would enable those who support confrontation to hit a responsive chord among a growingly disillusioned and frustrated community.
Finally, many Arabs expected President Clinton to introduce a new vision to its Middle East policies. These hopes persisted despite growing evidence of excessive bias toward Israel during the ninth and 10th rounds of the talks. Arabs shared with many of the Global South the impression that human rights, environment, and sustainable development would be the principal underpinnings of Mr. Clinton's foreign policy. Arabs hoped that such a fresh approach would help subsume US favoritism to Israel and render the geopolitical contents associated with its global responsibilities and superpower status on equal footing with the more compelling moral considerations that commitments to human rights and self-determination entail. These hopes remain. An intellectual and political effort should be made to prove that this continued Arab hope is justified.