How to Keep Middle East Bellicosity From Turning Into Another Real War

Howard R. Teicher, chief executive officer of Translation Technologies International, was a staff member of the National Security Council from 1982-87

Recent events in the Arab-Israeli conflict, along with dangerous, long-term military trends in the Middle East, have contributed to a regional environment where fear of a general war and the intensification of the intifada have nearly eclipsed all hope for further progress toward peace.

The recent suspension of the dialogue between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Iraq's renewed bid for leadership of the Arab world and the apparent decline of superpower interest--aside from the immigration of Soviet Jews--in the Middle East combine to reinforce political extremism in the region.

From the beginning, the Bush Administration's dialogue with the PLO was built on a fragile political foundation. In abandoning the dialogue, a move only reluctantly undertaken by President George Bush and James A. Baker III, the Administration appropriately reaffirmed its absolute intolerance of international terrorism. But heightened tensions in the Middle East will probably follow.

Despite Yasser Arafat's careful statements accepting Israel's right to exist, his renunciation of terrorism and his acceptance of two key United Nations resolutions as the basis for negotiating peace, he has consistently placed the preservation of the PLO, and his position as its chairman, first whenever confronted with a genuine peace choice.

Such behavior is, of course, not surprising. Arafat owes his international stature to his organization, and for most Palestinians, the PLO is important. Nonetheless, the need for self-preservation contributes significantly to Arafat's lack of maneuverability.

Confronted with unambiguous evidence of a terrorist raid on the Israeli coast, Arafat coyly evaded the issue: The PLO condemns terrorism against civilians, he said, but should not be held responsible for its members--in this case, Abul Abbas, the leader of the raid. Condemning the raid and disciplining Abbas, as the Administration sought, would have created a crisis within the PLO and further eroded Arafat's stature among Palestinians. Inevitably, a dialogue with Washington, which held out hope for peace, was sacrificed to the exigencies of intra-Palestinian politics.

A renewal of anti-Americanism in the Arab world--probably including an upsurge in international terrorism not necessarily limited to Israeli attacks--should be expected. With hopes for PLO support of elections on the West Bank and Gaza dashed, violence associated with the intifada will probably intensify. Israel's Arab citizens may become even more involved.

Regionally, an intensification of Palestinian violence and Arab frustration with Israel and with the United States can be expected to fuel simmering Middle East tensions. Although a full-scale Arab-Israeli war is not inevitable, one must always be prepared for the unexpected and violent in Middle East politics.

Arabs and Israelis are again becoming increasingly belligerent and fatalistic, creating an environment where the prospect of war--by miscalculation or design--becomes a realistic alternative to the preservation of the status quo or to the more difficult diplomatic avenues to peace. As in June, 1967, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan so inflamed the region's political environment that Israel moved militarily, today's rhetorical excesses, political frustrations and military capabilities may lead to renewed hostilities.

It was not mere rhetoric when King Hussein of Jordan asserted last week that "(the Arabs) may have no other choice but to go to war" with Israel. Given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's long-standing hostility toward Israel and his demonstrated willingness to wage war, his threats to strike Israel with long-range ballistic missiles must be taken at face value.

The conventional military balance continues to shift in favor of the Arab states. Assuming that Egypt would choose not to participate in a new war, Israel's technological superiority alone may not be capable of deterring a war or overcoming numerical imbalances--short of incurring unacceptably large numbers of casualties.

The imbalance in the ground and air forces is striking. Syria, Jordan and Iraq could field as many as 10,700 tanks and supporting units against Israel's 3,800. In the air, the Arab forces could launch more than 1,100 fighter aircraft against Israel's 680. As for surface-to-surface missiles, Syria and Iraq together possess more than 50 Scuds, capable of hitting any target in Israel; the Israeli arsenal of Jerichos can reach well beyond either Syria or Iraq.

It is thus not hard to imagine a scenario that could quickly escalate into full-scale war. Israel may choose to retaliate against Libya for its support of Abbas' raid or intensify the military crackdown on the Palestinians.

An Iraqi political-military response that would further unsettle the regional balance cannot be ruled out, either. Iraq has long sought to pre-deploy troops in Jordan and would characterize the action as an appropriate reaction and deterrent to Israeli aggression. Israel would perceive such a move as a direct threat that could quickly escalate to a violent confrontation leading to war.

To a Westerner, such a scenario may appear "irrational." But one can be sure that when Hussein invaded Iran in September, 1979, he was convinced he was acting rationally to counter the threat to secular Iraq posed by fundamentalist Iran. A military confrontation with Israel, even at a high cost in Arab blood, that achieved political results for the Iraqi leader--including retaliation for Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981--might seem to him even more "rational."

It should be recalled that Iraq, not Iran, initiated the "tanker war" in the Persian Gulf. Hussein's political objective, eventually achieved, was clear: increase the costs to the West so the West would pressure Iran to agree to a cease-fire. That experience might provide Hussein with an additional incentive to escalate from a political to a military confrontation: A limited conflict between Arabs and Israel would regenerate, as in 1973, the "serious interest" of Washington and Moscow--providing the Arab world with a political victory through superpower intervention.

Washington and Moscow should not wait until their services as mediators are required. Rather, creative diplomacy is needed to change the regional environment, reduce the prospects for war and ventilate the growing rage of Palestinians in the occupied territories. To this end, it is time to consider a joint U.S.-Soviet risk-reduction initiative.

While a bilateral working group has discussed the Middle East for the past several years, no new thinking has emerged from it. This is not a call to resurrect an international peace conference or to win Soviet support of the "Baker plan." Instead, U.S.-Soviet senior policy-makers should meet as a team with representatives of the key parties, including the PLO, to reduce the talk of war and, subsequently, to explore ideas for peace. This joint initiative might also offer a face-saving mechanism for the United States to resume a dialogue with the PLO and for the Soviet Union to resume full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The demonstration of sustained, serious interest in the Middle East that such a joint initiative would reflect might lead to the shaping of a realistic peace process that each party, including the superpowers, would have a stake in preserving. At a minimum, one would hope that the initiative, if sustained, could reduce the prospects for war and provide a mechanism for a continuing dialogue between Washington, Moscow, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and the Palestinian people.

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