Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's meeting with President Clinton on July 30 could not have come at a more critical time. The future of the peace process is in serious danger, as last month's Arab summit made clear. The US is the Arabs' last hope to save the process and keep the region from tumbling into chaos.
Arab governments and publics alike feel the Clinton administration is bending over backward to accommodate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demands as a way of atoning for having publicly supported his predecessor, Shimon Peres, in the recent election. Arabs are frustrated with Mr. Netanyahu's attempt to renegotiate the land-for-peace terms of peace and with America's refusal to criticize Israel.
President Mubarak was implicitly critical of the US stance when he linked Mideast-bred terrorism to lack of progress toward a just and comprehensive peace. Arab leaders leaders such as Mubarak have invested all their political capital in the strategic choice of peace with Israel. They have worked hard to convince their people that America is an honest broker in the process.
But the standing ovations Netanyahu received in the US Congress when he declared Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel, an image transmitted throughout the Middle East by satellite television, makes Arabs wonder about America's role. Supposedly, Jerusalem is an issue to be resolved in final-status talks. The TV screens suggested, however, that Congress is behind Netanyahu and that the issue of Jerusalem already has been settled in Israel's favor. Moreover, statements by Secretary of State Warren Christopher were ambiguous enough to suggest to high-level Arab officials that the US is backing away from land-for-peace.
It is important that the US administration realize the urgency of these concerns and move quickly to save this historic process. Peace cannot wait for the American election. The peace process could collapse either as a result of a major explosion of violence or a new Israeli push to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a prospect Mr. Clinton has failed to criticize.
Arabs' concerns are not limited to the peace process. They also worry about stronger Turkish-Israeli military relations. An alliance of two non-Arab US allies in the region represents a threat to the eastern part of the Arab world, namely Syria, and is seen as an aggressive move at a time when the whole region is supposedly moving toward peaceful economic cooperation.
The US military presence in the Persian Gulf is another irritant. Many Arabs fear the US is only interested in the Gulf's oil and not in the cultural integrity, rights, and lives of Arabs there. A discussion of America's presence is urgently needed. This is not to suggest the US should withdraw from the Gulf, but rather reconsider its deployment to take into consideration the vulnerability of Arab leaders.
Additional evidence of Washington's lack of concern for Arab feeling is its rejection of the UN report on Israel's April attack on the southern Lebanon town of Qana, in which 101 civilians were killed. (Amnesty International later issued an even more strongly worded report, accusing Israel of deliberately targeting Arab civilians, a war crime under international law.)
Another issue of contention: America's support of Israel's military superiority even in the area of nuclear weapons. While US Defense Secretary William Perry expresses outrage over Libya's possible manufacture of chemical weapons, the US disregards Arab fear of Israeli nuclear weapons and Arab calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
In spite of President Clinton's praise of Mr. Mubarak and his efforts to promote peace, the US leader's statements reflected little comprehension of the "dangerous consequences" Mubarak repeatedly predicted if the peace process falters. And Mubarak does not use such terms lightly.
Some Western analysts dismiss Arab public opinion as irrelevant, saying the public's view only matters in democracies. This is misguided. While public opinion in democracies can be expressed in words and ballots, in authoritarian states it can only be expressed by bullets and bombs. Ignoring Arab concerns could well increase acts like the bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia and undermine the policies of moderates like Mubarak. President Clinton must treat Arab states as partners rather than as a residue of US-Israeli relations.
Mamoun Fandy is research professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington.