The United States does not have forever in the Middle East. It is imperative that the next President break precedent early in his term, moving boldly and with some political risk, to convene an international conference to prevent the present volatile stalemate from becoming even more dangerous.
Such a conference--with Soviet co-sponsorship--would, at the least, test which parties are serious about peace and which are not. The new risks that the United States must take are to convene the conference first, then build a consensus through negotiations. Our traditional approach of insisting on preordained results has proved unfruitful, to say the least. A new President must try a new approach. The worst that could happen from a failed conference would be a return to the status quo. Absent war, that is about as bad as things can get.
One significant event has occurred.
In a rare political master stroke, King Hussein of Jordan, has unilaterally changed the chemistry in the region. However else one views it, his timing was exquisite. Iran and Iraq have exhausted themselves in a war remarkable in history only for its bloodshed. Syria has its hands full in Lebanon. Israel is preoccupied with its elections and its perceived need to crush the intifada.
The Jordanian monarch washed his hands of the West Bank mess as, one may be sure, he wishes he had done years ago. Why administer a region occupied by another power? And why do so forever when the responsible superpower, the United States, has been so ineffectual in generating serious negotiations?
Hussein has now shifted much of his burden, if not his involvement, to the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, and the United States--in that order. The PLO has been stunned into babbling confusion by suddenly finding itself with what it has claimed it wanted, namely responsibility for the West Bank. The Israelis must now negotiate with the PLO--which they obviously will not do. And Washington can no longer count on Jordan to be the Palestinian surrogate.
Recent suggestions of detente between Hussein and PLO leader Yasser Arafat underscore the king's strategy. Jordan is willing to form a confederation with the PLO if the PLO can convince the Israeli government, and its superpower guarantor, the United States, to deal with it over the status and governance of the West Bank and Gaza. Hussein has now publicly endorsed Labor's Shimon Peres, knowing full well that a Likud victory in the Israeli election Tuesday will be an end to any hope for early negotiated resolution of the occupied territories' limbo status.
Against the backdrop of the Israeli vote, consider these regional circumstances:
Lebanon is in chaos and may be headed toward self-annihilation. Iraq, stalemated in its peace negotiations with Iran, may now find occasion to settle scores with Syria and Israel, which had the questionable judgment to support Iran. Syria recently made the United States look silly by selling our envoy on a political deal in Lebanon that fell apart, now leaving all parties to barter as if in a souk. Israel, caught up in the turmoil of a national election, risks its national character on the West Bank. And Jordan teeters--as it has for a quarter-century--on the brink of a regional apocalypse.
We in the United States must be forewarned about the dangers here. We should not feign surprise if the worst possible thing happens. Circumstance and history have built volatility into the life of this region. And whether we like it or not, as a world power our responsibilities here are great.
Now what? First, several hurdles must be cleared. Lebanon must pick a consensus president to prevent total disintegration.
Israel must get through its election and set a new course that welcomes properly structured international negotiations. Iraq must complete its peace with Iran and play a greater moderating role in the region.
Most of all, the United States must sharpen its focus in the Middle East under a new President. Boldness and energy are the keys. Delay is the enemy. Presidential honeymoons are short and getting shorter. Even the most recalcitrant of parties would find a new President's proposal for an international peace conference difficult to resist. The crucial fact is that we alone have the power and prestige to make this happen. Without us it will not happen. And under a President weakened by time and political setbacks, it probably will not happen.
If drift and irresolution are in our interest, then we should simply stay the present course in the next Administration. But clearly we must think anew and act anew and turn the confluence of events, catalyzed by Hussein's disengagement, to our advantage and the advantage of peace. This will take a new President bold enough to break the shackles of past policies and use America's considerable but fragile influence to isolate the warmakers from the peacemakers throughout the region.