President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is the second Arab leader to visit Washington in a desperate attempt to save the peace process between Arabs and Israelis and to save the Middle East from the dire consequences of a failed peace effort. The American role is critical in shepherding this process back to the Madrid formula of land-for-peace and UN resolutions 242 and 338. At this critical juncture, the parties seem to have their own interpretations of the frame of reference and are moving further apart. Furthermore, suspicion between Arabs and Israelis has never been higher, and Arab concern over the role of the United States as an honest broker is growing.
Although the US has appointed able diplomats like Dennis Ross to make sure the parties are engaged, a technician like Mr. Ross cannot spur the process through the current disagreement. What the process needs now is the prestige of the US president to provide assurances and a conceptual way out by restating the principles of Madrid. President Clinton's mild criticism of Israel's settlement policy is not enough.
Arabs need reassurance that America is an honest broker. Many in the Arab world are already suspicious because the three key members of the US negotiating team are Jewish and, Arabs worry, biased toward Israel. One Palestinian leader refers to it as negotiating with two Jewish teams - one raising the American flag and the other raising the Israeli flag. Furthermore, in Arab eyes, Israel is not serious about peace. If it were serious, it has had more than six years since Madrid to show it. So far, only 2.8 percent of the West Bank has been placed under Palestinian control. At the current Israeli rate of withdrawal of 0.5 percent a year, it would take 200 years for the Palestinians to regain full control of the West Bank.
Arab leaders went out on a limb to convince their citizens that Israel is committed to peace. Mr. Mubarak has met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than once. Yet after Mr. Netanyahu left Cairo last week, he announced that he would close the PLO offices in Jerusalem, essentially discounting any Arab claim to a city that has been holy to both Arab Muslims and Arab Christians for more than a thousand years.
American interest in the broader region - from the Persian Gulf to North Africa - should not be held hostage to the Israeli lobby in Washington. The Middle East should not be seen through Israeli lenses. Egypt, for instance, is an important country in its right. Egypt brought many Arabs together during the Gulf war; without its active diplomacy and involvement no coalition could have lasted. The amount of aid that the US offers Egypt annually is very little compared with what Egypt does to promote the American agenda and American interests in the area. Little can be done in the region without Egypt.
Mr. Clinton should assure Mubarak that America is still interested in a just peace that gives the Arabs their land and Israel its security. To do so, Clinton will need to be more forceful in criticizing the Israeli government's illegal confiscation of Arab land. Israel should not get away with redeployment from Arab territories publicly while confiscating more land in the dark, thus changing facts on the ground and prejudicing final status negotiations. Israel should be held accountable to normal standards of international law, including honoring already signed agreements and adhering to the land-for- peace frame of reference agreed on in the Madrid conference.
Might makes right should not be the name of the game. The basis for a just peace is land for peace and security for all.
* Mamoun Fandy is a research professor of politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.