Stop Waffling, Mr. President, Your Leadership Is Needed

Completion of final-status agreements in the Middle East must be a priority

Does the well-being of the people of the Middle East matter to President Clinton and Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright?

If the answer is yes, then they need to act fast to prevent the region from collapsing into full-blown (and heavily armed) chaos. The best way to do this is to aim now - this year - at not just pursuing but also completing final-status agreements between Israel and its neighbors based on the broadly accepted, 30-year formula of "land for peace."

The early years

When Mr. Clinton first came to the White House in 1993, he met a happy constellation of forces all pulling together toward a sustainable Middle East peace.

President George Bush bequeathed him the well-crafted framework launched at the Madrid peace conference in 1991, which addressed both bilateral issues between Israel and its Arab neighbors and regionwide issues such as water and refugees.

Taking part in the Madrid-based talks in 1993 were leaderships in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as Palestinians, who all agreed on the need to trade real land for real peace. This principle was supported, too, by most of the American public.

It took Clinton too long, the first time around, to figure out exactly how his team could achieve this. (Indeed, he has never seemed willing to spell out any explicitly American goals regarding the shape of a Middle East peace, despite the generous role this country plays in supporting countries such as Israel and Egypt.)

But, despite the absence of American leadership, the process brought significant negotiating breakthroughs - not only on the Palestinian and Jordanian fronts, but also a lesser-known set of achievements between Israel and Syria.

In May 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad both verbally agreed to an unprecedented document later lodged with the State Department, which spelled out the "Aims and Principles of a Security Arrangement" between their countries. The laudable and very realizable aims listed there included reducing, if not almost totally eliminating, the danger of a surprise attack; preventing or limiting daily friction along the border; and reducing the danger of a large-scale offensive, invasion, or comprehensive war.

The "principles" listed in the document described the need for substantial demilitarization on both sides of the line. Given that Syria was then, and remains, the only neighbor capable of inflicting considerable military damage on Israel, this agreement was historic. It foresaw a region freed at last from the threat of an Arab-Israeli war.

According to participants, this agreement was possible only because the Rabin government had previously agreed to entertain the idea of pulling Israel completely out of the Syrian territory occupied in 1967 on the Golan. In subsequent rounds of talks, held under Mr. Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres, negotiators spelled out further details of the security arrangement - one the Syrians conceded explicitly would be asymmetrical in Israel's favor.

But where in all this was the hand of the talks' all-important American "sponsor" urging the parties to a speedy conclusion? Nowhere.

Back in 1978, it took 12 days of intense involvement by President Carter to bring the Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt to a conclusion, and this understanding has withstood the test of time. In contrast, Clinton spent most of the past four years pandering to the lowest common denominator inside Israel - an approach that helped bring about the election of an anti-peace government there.

On the Syrian front, as with the Palestinians, the significant but unfinished achievements of the Rabin era now lie in tatters.

Reaffirm American support

Enough! Clinton can show real leadership. He can publicly reaffirm American support for all the agreements successfully negotiated with neighbors by a previous government of Israel, and explain to Israelis and Americans alike why the United States has a real stake in seeing these agreements finalized this year. Alternatively, he can waffle, as he has about Hebron, and say maybe Rabin's agreements were not such a big deal after all, and why bother to risk a showdown with Israel's hard-line Likud government?

Waffling may seem the easier choice. But it's a sure recipe for breakdown, conflict, and even war in a region that could yet - with wise leadership - see real peace.

Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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