Competing interests tug at US in Mideast

The US walks a tightrope between its Israeli ally and oil-producing Arab nations.

As tension continues in the Middle East, the United States finds itself torn between two of its most crucial strategic interests.

On one side are the Arab countries who supply much of the oil that fuels the roaring US economy. On the other side is Israel, a strategic partner that is Washington's best foothold in a sometimes hostile region.

Now, as strategic parts of those two worlds again become enmeshed in violence, the US is delicately trying to strike a balance between them.

With Israeli-Palestinian clashes continuing to flare - and with a long-term peace deal seeming as elusive as ever - the US is being tested in its longstanding and overt support for Israel, which has been a cornerstone of Middle East policy since the Truman administration.

Hopes for new peace talks

This week President Clinton has been pressing for an emergency summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, although that looks unlikely in the immediate future.

Still, Mr. Clinton yesterday did not rule out the possibility that either he or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would eventually travel to the region to help mediate a cease-fire - and perhaps jump-start the peace process.

"Both sides are taking responsibility here for moving out of this [violence]," Clinton said in a press briefing yesterday.

The Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting since last month, when right-wing Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited an Islamic holy site in Jerusalem and touched off a conflict with local Arabs.

Over 90 people have been killed so far, most of them Palestinians or Israeli Arabs.

While the clashes have been limited to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, US officials warn that the violence could spread.

"There is a danger that if this goes unchecked, we could see a much wider conflict with many more nations involved, and that would be devastating for everyone concerned," said US Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

The tough role of broker

For the US, the role of intermediary has been particularly difficult. While US officials have tried to be honest peace brokers, it is hard to deny that Washington has a special relationship with the Israelis, who have a strong lobby in the US and who have bipartisan support in Congress.

Yet no American president has looked as favorably upon Mr. Arafat as has Clinton, analysts say, and it is questionable whether the Palestinians could achieve a better bargaining position under a new US administration.

"There is an understanding among Middle East leaders that the US has been able to deliver more concessions from Israel than the Palestinians have been able to deliver for themselves," says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton has cultivated a relationship with Mr. Arafat, who has visited the White House more than a dozen times.

After Camp David peace talks broke down this summer, the US assigned much of the blame to Mr. Arafat, although more recent mediation efforts have focused on bridging the differences between the two sides, which primarily concern the future of Jerusalem.

The latest round of violence, however, has put the US back in a tough position. Officials in Washington do not want to create undue tension with other Arab nations, who are watching the situation closely. Nor do they want to damage ties with the Palestinians, which could result in a US loss of the ability to mediate peace talks. At the same time, the US does not want to abandon Israel, which is surrounded by increasingly hostile neighbors.

That dilemma was evident in the US reaction to the Sharon visit, which the Palestinians blame for triggering the violence.

Dr. Albright said the visit was not "constructive," though she stopped short of pinning the blame on the Israelis.

Furthermore, when the United Nations Security Council recently considered a resolution to condemn Israel for using excessive force on Palestinian rioters, the US abstained, drawing criticism from some lawmakers who thought the US should have enacted its veto power.

The US has also been slow to condemn Mr. Arafat, who clearly has not done as much as he could to stop the violence.

The Saudi heir to the throne, Crown Prince Abdullah, recently warned Israel that "nobody should think the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the whole Arab and Islamic nation would just watch with their hands tied" if more violence erupts.

Those comments alone raised the price of oil, although most experts say the Saudis are unlikely to undertake any kind of oil embargo, as they did in 1973.

Yet there are other US concerns besides oil. As anti-Israeli sentiment rises in the Middle East, so do anti-American feelings. US embassies could be at risk, as could the security of US troops.

"The US has made a long and deep investment in the region that it does not want to lose - from Israel to Egypt to Saudi Arabia," says Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now. "There are also bigger strategic risks in the Middle East, such as the development of weapons systems in Iraq and Iran."

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, argues that the US has been far too accommodating to the Palestinians. He says that by not giving the Israelis firmer backing - and denouncing the Palestinian violence - the US feeds the notion that Israel is weak. Because of that, Mr. Pipes says, the US should reconsider its role as peacemaker, and come to terms with its more immediate strategic concerns.

Says Pipes: "We need to rethink how we do this…. We need a strong Israel, or we're in trouble."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.