Changes Stir Middle East; Can America Fill Its Role?

<i> Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies</i>

The new year dawned with the world waiting to see where and how Israel will retaliate for the latest terrorist outrages at the Rome and Vienna airports. There is also the expectation of more terrorist acts against Americans because of events in the Middle East. Yet this could also be the year to start putting terrorism in its place.

It seems reassuring to talk about a cycle of violence, as though terrorism and its responses had lives of their own, impervious to action. Yet there is nothing ineluctable about terrorism. Its visit is not preordained like Halley’s comet. By and large it has both political causes and political solutions.

For many of our leaders this is an inconvenient point, because it means taking difficult and demanding actions that go beyond rhetorical posturing and an occasional military foray.

During his recent visit to Yugoslavia, Secretary of State George P. Shultz slammed his fist on the table when being lectured to look at the facts of Arab-Israeli politics as well as the facts of terror. His gesture was satisfying to many here. It also was wrong--an abdication of responsibility to understand what is happening.


Similarly, it is wrong for Administration officials to categorize terrorism merely as an aberration in human behavior to be railed against rather than remedied. Being aware of the political roots of terrorism calls the U.S. government to account for its lackluster approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking during five violence-filled years.

The wisdom and courage to deal with basic political forces have been little more evident in the Middle East. Last February, King Hussein of Jordan joined Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a new diplomatic approach about possible negotiations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres responded positively.

Yet this hopeful attempt at peacemaking has now foundered. The Reagan Administration failed to seize the moment, unlike the successful risk-taking of its three predecessors. Last week President Reagan urged Israel to exercise restraint lest the peace process be damaged; he seemed unaware that it is already moribund, in major part through inattention at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, Israelis caviled over the composition of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation slated by the Hussein-Arafat proposal--thereby failing to recognize the proposal’s potential. Arafat, not noted for courage or statesmanship, has again taken one step forward, two steps back. Hussein has demanded, publicly, that the Soviets be involved in the process and, privately, that he receive U.S. arms that are particularly obnoxious to Israel. A further curse was provided by assorted terrorists, who knew that their bombs and bullets would kill more progress toward peace than people.


All these half-measures and active opposition elements are the Alphonse and Gaston of shirking responsibility for Arab-Israeli peacemaking that mock the sacrifice of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Yet some things may be changing.

Israel is rarely at a loss in deciding how and where to retaliate against terrorism. But now there is rare reflection in Jerusalem about the steps that follow. Not only is Lebanon no longer everyone’s free-fire zone. Not only did Israel’s attack last fall on PLO headquarters in distant Tunisia bring an unusual rebuke from Washington. It also has been clear for some time that the PLO is split down the middle.

It is no longer sufficient for Israel to identify a Palestinian perpetrator and thereby condemn an entire people and all its leaders. Israel, too, must deal with the strange phenomenon that Arafat may be a victim of terror from the likes of Abu Nidal and Mohammed Abbas. For Israel, this raises a historic question: whether there are Palestinians with whom it can and will deal in the interests of a peaceful and secure future.

Arafat, meanwhile, has long since become the key symbol of Palestinian aspirations. But this is a symbol whom thoughtful Palestinians have tried, in vain, to turn into the substance of peacemaking. As the past year’s failed diplomacy has shown, responsibility for the Palestinian cause needs to be entrusted to a different leader. Courage demanded of Israel must be equaled by the Palestinians.

For its part, the U.S. government rests in the relative comfort of believing that, so long as the Egypt-Israel treaty holds, there can be no major, “rational” war. Nor can there be a consequent U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Yet thicker ice than this has led diplomatic skaters to tragedy. The treaty survived the assassination of one Egyptian leader; it might not survive the overthrow of another, Hosni Mubarak, and he is now at risk.

The causes of peace and anti-terrorism in 1986 are thus one and the same. As always, the issue is responsibility. It is shared, but leadership must come from the Reagan Administration. America is still believed by all to be the key to peace. Until Washington accepts its ordained role and acts for peace, we can expect more terror and tragedy. Americans will wonder why--oblivious to their government’s failures.