Posted on September 29, 1997 in Washington Watch

The peace process is in a state of collapse. This poses a danger not only to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. U.S. interests in a stable and secure Middle East will also be negatively impacted. What is required now is firm and aggressive U.S. leadership – specifically through pressure on and sanctions against policies of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Anything less than this would compromise U.S. interests and the security and stability of U.S. allies in the Middle East.

This was the essence of the message I conveyed to the State Department last week. I was privileged to have been invited as a “Distinguished Speaker” at the Secretary’s Open Forum – a series of guest lectures organized out of the office the Secretary of State.

As I began my message I told the assembled audience of State Department personnel that I have for many years made a serious effort to explain U.S. policy to the Arab world. I have also worked to bring Arab needs and concerns into the U.S. policy debate.

The gap, however, between U.S. policy and politics and the just requirement of the Arab world has become so great that it is increasingly difficult to bridge the chasm.

There is, today, not only a crisis in trust and confidence between the Israeli government and the Arab world, but there is, in the Arab world, a loss of confidence in U.S. leadership as well.

I reminded my audience that when the peace process began after the Gulf War, then President Bush articulated a vision of a new Middle East of new possibilities. This, he noted, was important for the Middle East and also for the U.S.

At every step the Arabs responded affirmatively to the U.S. initiative. They went to Madrid and participated in multilateral peace talks. When Secretary Baker urged Arab states to end the secondary boycott of Israel many Arab states responded with the condition that Israel freeze settlements. Arabs came to the White House for the 1993 signing and participated in the Economic Summits at Casablanca, Amman and Cairo. And when terrorism struck in 1996, many Arab states accepted the U.S. invitation to Sharm al Sheikh, to reaffirm their commitment to peace.

But peace was to be reciprocal and Arab expectations in the peace process have not been fulfilled. Palestinians are poorer, more vulnerable, and less free than they were before peace was signed. Israel, on the other hand, has been aggressively seizing more Palestinian land, building more settlements and roads, and using closure and collective punishment to economically strangle the Palestinian Authority.

With the election of the Likud government, these Israeli anti-peace politics have accelerated to the point where most Palestinians and Arabs have lost hope and confidence in the peace process itself.

As a result the Palestinian and Arab leadership that made peace have become vulnerable.

If Israeli policies have damaged Arab confidence, what has further compounded the problem are hostile actions of the U.S. Congress and the gap that exists between U.S policy concerns and the rhetoric of the U.S. political discourse.

I reminded my audience that the U.S. has chided Arab leaders for using language in speeches causing Israelis to question Arab commitment to peace. The same, I noted, should be said to U.S. politicians who have passed anti-Arab legislation on Jerusalem, against Syria, Palestinian aid and even the Arab League. In addition, I noted the context of speeches given by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Republican candidate for President Bob Dole, and congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt before the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, – all of which sent the wrong U.S. message to the Arab world. Arabs can not so easily dismiss the rhetoric of campaign-year politics. It is hurtful and damaging to their confidence in U.S. leadership and to their belief in U.S. intentions.

What the Arab world is in need of is U.S. commitment to peace not just in words, but in deeds. Secretary Albright, I indicated, did make an effort at balance in her recent Middle East visit. But, what the Arab world now wants to see is what will be done to arrest the downward slide in the peace effort – what measures will be taken to press the Israelis to stop settlements, implement agreements reached, and complete negotiations on outstanding issues.

It is wrong, I told my audience, for the U.S. today to remain passive in the face of Israeli actions. As the U.S. diligently presses Palestinians, it must do more to press the Israelis to stop their aggressive and unilateral policies.

Five years ago, at the beginning of the process, it may have been possible for Secretary Baker to give the countries of the Middle East the U.S. phone number and tell them to call when they were ready to make peace. But today, with all the energy that has been invested in the peace process and with the erosion in U.S. standing in the region and with the loss of hope in the future of peace, such a tactic in the midst of a failing process only serves to increase despair and feed extremism.

I concluded my remarks, noting that despite congressional pressure and the efforts of the Israeli lobby. I believe that the Administration could win a majority in Congress and the American Jewish community to its side if it took a strong leadership role in pursuit of peace. And with so much at stake, we can hardly afford not to act quickly and decisively to restore confidence.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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