Posted on November 20, 2000 in Washington Watch

The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the continuing economic sanctions against Iraq have combined to create a difficult situation for the United States in the Arab world. It requires an immediate U.S. response.

Palestinians have not only lost hope in the peace process, they have lost confidence in the United Sates to serve as an honest-broker in that process. At the same time, the continuing loss of Palestinian life resulting from Israel’s use of disproportionate force is having an impact in the broader Middle East.

The Arab world is following these developments quite closely. Arabs are as inspired by the Palestinian resistance as they are inflamed both by Israel’s use of force and its exclusive claims to Jerusalem. There is also a growing Arab anger at the appearance that the United States has sided with Israel’s position and with U.S. silence in the face of more than 200 Palestinian deaths.

The result has been an unraveling of Arab attitudes both toward the prospects for regional peace and the very fabric of the U.S.-Arab relationship. At risk are U.S. interests in the broader Middle East and ties with several important Arab allies.

The current Administration has but two months and a limited mandate in which it may act to reverse this downward slide. They may not be able, at this point, to resolve the conflict and establish a comprehensive peace. But they can make a determined effort both to restore confidence in U.S. leadership and to establish some specific goals that will provide the next Administration and Israelis and Arabs alike with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

To do this, the United States must publicly reexamine some aspects of its Middle East policy, restate some of its fundamental commitments, and intensively engage public opinion on all sides of the Middle East equation.

Firstly, the United States can help end current hostilities and stem the possibility of that violence spilling over into a broader regional war. Instead of merely relying on Israelis and Palestinians to act, the United States could address some root causes of the current dilemma.

Palestinians need to have their hope restored. The United States can help provide that with a clear expression of support for the legitimate Palestinian right to a sovereign state, with a capital in Jerusalem, exercising full control over its own borders. The United States should also make clear that Israel’s continued expansion of settlements and settlement by-pass roads are not only an obstacle, but the obstacle to a just resolution of the conflict. Israel’s proposed budget for 2001 includes $500 million for settlements and settlement infrastructure. The U.S. should make clear that Israel may have settlements or peace, but not both.

At the same time the U.S. should express its sorrow over the loss of Palestinian life. Israel’s objections to international protection for the Palestinians and its withholding of revenues from the Palestinian Authority must also be opposed. During the last seven years little has been done to improve the economic lot of Palestinians. This must, as least, be acknowledged and firm commitments must be made to change this state of affairs.

The U.S. should also make clear its grave concern with Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons in the continuing violence. Under the terms of the Arms Export Control Act the United States can restrict shipments of weapons if the President or Department of State finds that their export “will increase the possibility of outbreak or escalation of conflict.” Israel’s use of U.S. supplied helicopter gunships to kill Fateh commanders and to attack Palestinian Authority offices and more recently to land in south Lebanon should provide sufficient justification for the Administration to publicly call for an examination of Israeli behavior.

Such steps would help restore some confidence in U.S. leadership and act as a restraint against any further escalation or expansion of the conflict. It would, especially if coupled with the other measures outlined above, also provide the Palestinian leadership with the ability to restore some hope and calm among their much-aggrieved people.

But the United States must do more. For too long the United States has addressed the Arab world through the narrow confines of the peace process. In some instances, improvements of bilateral relations were tied to a country’s stance toward peace with Israel. It is vitally important, therefore, that the Administration utilize this interregnum to restate its commitment to bilateral relations with individual Arab countries and regional blocs of Arab countries. These relationships are important in their own right and steps should be taken to affirm that reality.

And finally it is vital for the United States to reexamine its policy toward Iraq–both the economic sanctions and the enforcement of no-fly zones in that country.
In the short time it has left, there are several means available for the Administration to achieve some of these objectives.

Both the President and Secretary of State can deliver major policy speeches that define U.S. positions on several of these critical issues and establish goals for the future. For example, a clear statement of U.S. objectives in the peace process, and an unambiguous and specific statement of commitment to Palestinian aspirations can be helpful both to restoring some calm in the current situation and to laying down benchmarks for the next Administration.

The Administration can also convene several important public forums in the United States and in the Middle East designed to reassess policy and outline new initiatives on some important aspects of U.S.-Arab relations.

For example, the United States should consider meetings with government officials, opinion leaders and leaders in the private sector in several Arab countries on matters of concern to U.S. bilateral and regional ties. The Administration should also invite Arab American leaders to a public policy seminar where their input can be sought in an effort to make transition recommendations for the incoming Administration.

Finally the Administration should announce its own internal review of U.S. policy toward Iraq, in consultation with regional Arab allies. The objective of this review should be to redefine policy objectives toward that country and to assess whether or not existing policy is contributing to regional peace and stability.
In all of these instances the objectives should be: to aggressively engage public opinion in the Arab world; to establish confidence in the U.S. commitment to justice and evenhandedness; to restore hope in the future of peace; and to rebuild tattered U.S.-Arab relationships.

What is clear is that at this point the future of the peace process and the U.S. role in the broader Arab world have become intertwined. The Clinton Administration inherited a complex legacy from its predecessor. On the one hand, there was undisputed U.S. leadership in a deeply flawed peace process. After a successful convening at Madrid, that process broke down into several competing tracks and still refused to allow the participation of the PLO. On the other hand, there was a defeated but unrepentant Iraq living under a vigorous complete sanctions regime.

During the past eight years, this Administration has attempted to manage both situations without a critical reexamination of policy in either case. The actions of a hostile Congress did not help matters. Pushed by pro-Likud forces and a partisan agenda, Congress, for example, imposed hostile encumbrances on aid to the Palestinians, forced the issue of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and passed the ill-conceived Iraq Liberation Act.

The Administration resisted many of these efforts, but never publicly and vigorously challenged them. To his credit, the President took dramatic and independent steps to upgrade the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, subtly but firmly challenged the intransigence of the Likud government, and, to the extent that Congress would allow, pushed for a liberalization of the sanctions regime against Iraq.

It is still too early to draw up a complete eight year balance sheet. But if left unchecked, the current crises in the peace process and the U.S.-Arab relationship do not provide for a promising legacy.

While freed from electoral concerns, the last two months of this Administration do not allow for dramatic initiatives. It is true that this Administration has a limited mandate and not much time left. But there are steps that can, and must be taken to allow this Administration to pass on to its successor a more promising situation than the one that is currently unfolding in the Middle East.

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