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Ha'aretz, Wednesday, June 3, 1998
News Analysis

America, the Weak?

For Israel, placing blame for the faltering peace process is easy: it's U.S. weakness

By David Makovsky

Sometimes it seems that there is more than just an ocean separating Washington and Jerusalem.

In a recent meeting with American Jewish leaders in her office, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was upset. At first she spoke about how she felt she was being demonized in the American Jewish community and then, according to participants, she said, "the lack of movement on the peace process is not just hurting our credibility in the Middle East. It is also hurting our credibility in India."

Albright is not suggesting that what occurs in India and Pakistan per se is due to an impasse in the Middle East peace process. But she does seem to be saying that Israel is demonstrating that one can defy the U.S. on a few percentage points in the West Bank and not worry about the consequences of non-compliance.

In Jerusalem, officials look at things in the reverse. Privately, senior members of the Netanyahu cabinet are sketching a portrait of a Clinton administration that is weak in foreign policy matters, which leads to questions about the U.S. commitment to the peace process. Some in the government wonder "what is the value of a U.S. guarantee that convicted Palestinian terrorists will remain in prison" if Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can safely defy a phone call the night before from President Clinton, who asked Pakistan to refrain from nuclear tests? "Given what is happening in the world, this is now subject to doubt," sources in Jerusalem say.

In short, the United States believes that the deterioration of the peace process contributes, at least in some form, to a wider deterioration, while Israel says the reverse: larger U.S. problems cast a shadow on the peace process.

Whoever is right, one thing seems clear: American standing in this part of the world appears weaker than it did in the past. The issue is not limited to India and Pakistan. There is other evidence. First, Saudi Arabia signed a cooperation agreement with Iran a week ago after two decades of hostility, creating another blow to the U.S. policy of dual containment and thereby virtually closing the door on a U.S. investigation into an Iranian link to the killing of 19 U.S. servicemen in the Khobar Towers explosion in Saudi Arabia two years ago.

Second, as the crisis in February demonstrated, Iraq is also chipping away at international sanctions, pumping more oil and inching its way back into the the inter-Arab system. During the last crisis, the Americans could not assemble a regional coalition, as they did in 1991.

Third, Russia is likely to gain influence as it sells ballistic missile technology to Iran, announces military cooperation with Syria, and even sells missiles to Cyprus. Moscow has been a chief advocate of lifting sanctions on Iraq.

Fourth, the U.S. economic conference in the Middle East, held four years in a row, has been canceled this year after the embarrassing turnout in Doha, Qatar last November.

William Quandt, a leading scholar of diplomacy in the Middle East, sees the region in the context of U.S. foreign policy failures. "Nobody thinks twice about snubbing Clinton," he says. "Nobody fears consequences. He may huff and puff, but no more. What is the risk? The Israelis, Saudis, Indians, and Pakistanis feel they can defy him."

The Clinton administration's view is that its standing and influence in the region could be restored by a more robust peace process. This view is rooted in its belief that the peace process began in Madrid in 1991 because radical regimes felt marginalized due to the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War. The U.S. believes a successful peace process will marginalize radicals further. And it believes that the converse of this is also true: a failed peace process will embolden radicals and they will find more allies.

In Congressional testimony, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk bemoaned a "closing window of opportunity" in the Middle East. Indyk's premise was shared by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, but there is no evidence to suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is worried that peace must be reached now before radicals such as Iran and Iraq re-arm and change the regional balance of power.

Israel is not looking at the big picture, a senior Clinton official complained this week. "Security must be defined more broadly. You have to be blind not to see what is happening."

A day before Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Karazzi visited Pakistan, the official said that "it does not take a lot of imagination to speculate about potential cooperation given new international sanctions on Pakistan."

The official added that "[Hamas leader] Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin is being received as a head of state by Middle East governments, and there are reports that he is receiving tens of millions of dollars. Yassin is a direct challenge to [PA Chairman] Yasser Arafat. Why are the Saudis welcoming Yassin? They want political cover since there are no breakthroughs on the peace process. Does this make Israel more secure? If we don't move forward, the future is the Islamic bomb and Sheikh Yassin and there is not much that can be done about it."

The U.S. hears a lot about the deterioration of its role from Arab leaders. In a rare interview published in The New York Times this week, the head of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan, emphasized the point. He said if America does not succeed in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, "it would be like unleashing a wild beast into the world." Zayed went so far as to say that he thinks the U.S. went to the brink in the recent Gulf crisis so as to put pressure on the Palestinians to "be softer in seeking to redress the injustice against them."

In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said that "the American policy toward the peace process and Israel has deeply affected relations between the U.S. and the Middle East, especially with the rise in the importance of public opinion... Public opinion is angry."

The different reactions of Clinton and Netanyahu toward the Arab position during the Gulf crisis speaks volumes. Clinton said openly that he understood the Arab obstacle to confronting Saddam. In December, he said that it is hard to build "a community of shared values" declaring, "we will never, ever do that until there is peace between Israel and her neighbors. The absence of peace "undermines our ability to seek a unified solution."

At the same time, Netanyahu made clear that he has a totally different view. He believes the Arabs use the stalled peace process as an excuse for their recalcitrance when in fact the problem is that the U.S. does not go all the way in confronting Iraq. Netanyahu believes the Arabs would line up with the United States if they knew that it was intent on eliminating Saddam Hussein and not just delivering a pinprick, which could make them a target for retaliation.

Clinton administration officials say a key factor in the U.S. desire to strike a West Bank redeployment deal is its need to "clear the decks" since it will soon need to confront Iraq again.

Netanyahu aide and UN Ambassador Dore Gold believes that the lack of willingness among Gulf states to support Clinton on Iraq is not tied to the peace process. "Saudi readiness to accept a large Western military presence is not a function of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians," he says "but rather is more affected by three other factors: the succession in Saudi Arabia from Fahd to Abdullah, the Saudi fear of internal resistance to Western forces as exemplified by the two bomb attacks in Riyadh and al-Khobar, and finally the Saudi understanding of whether a Western military action will be decisive rather than being only a kick in the shins that will leave an enraged Saddam retaliating against his closest target."

Senior ministers in the Netanyahu government go further. Their point of departure - in private, anyway - is American weakness. It begins with the February Gulf crisis, which ended by letting Iraq double its oil-for-food production, bringing it to 80 percent of its 1990 production on the eve of its invasion of Kuwait.

The U.S. then compounded this problem last week, these officials say, by removing one of the two aircraft carriers from the Gulf, sending a message that the prospect of a U.S. confrontation with Iraq is dwindling.

Beyond its handling of Iraq, Israelis are critical of the way the United States deals with Iran. The Clinton administration advertised its anti-sanctions policy toward Iran in two separate instances, and then expressed surprise that European allies did not want to follow its lead in slapping the Indian sub-continent with sanctions. "Countries like Iran and Iraq feel they can go ahead with programs with impunity," a senior government source in Jerusalem observed.

This official fears, however, that the net impact of American foreign policy failures may be to get tougher with Israel. "The inability of the U.S. to flex its muscles might mean that it will try to bend Israel instead of taking on the tough nuts," the senior government official said. "So you kick your allies, instead of dealing with intransigent non-democratic states, in order to prove you are strong and counter the perception of weakness. This is always dangerous, since it can lead to proving strength in the wrong place.

(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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