The enthusiasm that has greeted the Hebron agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israeli forces withdrawing from most of the city, is well deserved and could have far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. The deal demonstrated that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to accept the principles of the Oslo peace process negotiated by his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. His actions have also challenged the basic theology of Israel's right wing, which for years has called for Israeli sovereignty over the "land of Israel," including the West Bank.
Yet it would be irresponsible to be too upbeat about the Middle East at this point in time. Israel and the Palestinian Authority must agree on far more difficult problems if a permanent peace is to happen. These include Israel's further withdrawal from areas of the West Bank and the so-called "final-status" issues - Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlement activity, permanent borders, and whether there should be a Palestinian state.
The United States has huge interests in a successful outcome of these negotiations since it would likely lead to further peace treaties between Israel and Arab countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. This in turn would strengthen America's strategic posture in the vital Persian Gulf.
Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the US has been a key external player in the region. With the decline of British and French influence following the 1956 Suez crisis and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US emerged as the dominant foreign presence.
Why some regimes use terror
Intense differences of opinion exist as to how the US should use its power and whether this period of dominance has peaked. Regimes in the most radical states - especially Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan - regard the US as the single greatest threat to their existence. So long as the US challenges them at every level - and, in the case of Iraq, calls for overthrow of the regime - their future is in jeopardy. They use anti-Americanism and terrorism to sustain their fragile domestic base.
Other regimes that formerly posed a radical challenge, particularly Syria, believe that dealing with the United States is the only way to remain a relevant player in the post-cold-war era.
Friendly countries, including Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states, all have strong security links with the US and regard it as protector of last resort. They believe that, without high-profile US involvement, peace diplomacy will make little progress and that in the event of a new Middle East war, a US military role will be decisive. They disagree as to how much leverage the US should apply to achieve its diplomatic and military goals.
Arab countries argue the US does not use enough of its clout to change Israeli policy. Many Israelis believe Arabs are rearming with US weapons while wanting the US to carry the burden of pressuring Israel to make concessions.
Setbacks and Saudis
The linkage between progress toward an Arab-Israeli peace and the viability of the long-run US security commitment to the Gulf is important. A collapse of the peace process would weaken the credibility of US Gulf strategy. The setbacks during 1996, following the suicide bombings in Israel and the election of Mr. Netanyahu, have chilled Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan, have postponed any chance of a breakthrough with Syria, and have put on hold further diplomatic contacts with Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco.
These setbacks have made the Saudi regime even more unwilling to take initiatives toward peace and have strengthened radicals in the kingdom who wish to end US presence in the Arabian peninsula. In extremis, US ability to deploy and operate military forces in the Gulf could be severely constrained by lack of cooperation from front-line Muslim states. This would increase the dangers of regional miscalculation by leaders such as Saddam Hussein.
To appreciate the status of US-Middle East diplomacy, five political realities must be acknowledged:
* America's relationship with Israel has become closer and more symbiotic in recent years.
* US administrations have found it much easier to work with the Labor Party than the Likud, since Labor's agenda for Middle East peace settlement is more similar to America's.
* Middle East oil remains important to US strategic economic interests. Approximately 70 percent of the world's proven oil reserves lie under the soil and seabed of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula, and the Caspian basin. As demand for oil increases throughout the globe, especially from Asia, dependence on Persian Gulf production is likely to increase.
* After a brief hiatus, great-power rivalry is looming once more in Middle East politics. Russia is no longer a major supporter of US diplomacy as it was during the Gulf crisis. Likewise, China is emerging as a player in the Middle East both as an arms supplier (currently to Pakistan and Iran) and a purchaser of energy. West European powers are asserting a more independent role and taking stands out of kilter with US policy. The failure of European powers to support US sanctions against Iran led the US Congress to pass the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996. This law penalizes foreign companies who do business with Iranian and Libyan oil and gas industries.
* The Arab-Israeli peace process has passed a point of no return. The wider Middle East region is at a crossroads, racing against time. The process cannot remain on hold.
The good news is that most Arabs have accepted Israel's right to exist and Israel recognizes the need to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership. Supporters of a peace settlement exercise the most political influence in the region.
To save the good news
But this could unravel very quickly if expectations are thwarted and violence, once again, refocuses regional priorities. Bubbling beneath the surface are a number of dangers. Religious extremism, economic asymmetry, and spread of weapons of mass destruction could combine to create a new Middle East powder keg. If the peace unravels, it will be much harder to prevent continued rearmament, a drift toward war, and economic recession.
While the United States role is critical, its regional partners must cooperate and make the necessary compromises for progress. If they continue to put off the tough choices, they will have no one but themselves to blame for disasters that follow.
* Geoffrey Kemp is director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington.