The dramatic transformation of the Middle East brought about by the mutual recognition of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is tenuous and reversible. The courage and vision of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat have kindled the hopes of millions that the Arab-Israel conflict might soon be resolved. But the will and ability of radicals to undermine the agreements must not be underestimated.
It is now the responsibility of Washington to provide the leadership necessary to overcome the forces opposed to the accord even as it works to enlarge the constituencies of peace. With the conclusion of a formal Jordanian-Israeli agenda for negotiations, Israel, Jordan and the PLO have now entered into contractual obligations with one another. As witness-es to the agreements, the United States and Russia must ensure that the parties implement them.
But Syrian President Hafez Assad must agree to support these agreements, and other Muslim states must change their behavior toward Israel as well, if Israeli leaders are to continue to make tangible concessions in exchange for promises of peace and if Arafat is to fulfill his stated commitments. Assad’s ability to play the spoiler cannot be underestimated.
It is vital to recall how Assad used terrorism to undermine the U.S.-brokered peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon in 1983 and then restore Syrian hegemony in most of Lebanon.
With the Cold War over, Assad ended Syria’s isolation from the West by participating in the Desert Storm coalition against Iraq and negotiating with Israel in Madrid. Moreover, the rhetoric of Damascus in the last two years has been clearly aimed at preparing the Syrian people for eventual peace with Israel.
But Assad is discomfited by his sudden and unexpected lack of influence over the future of Palestine. Although there is significant opposition to the accords from fundamentalist Hamas leaders in Gaza and pro-Iranian Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, the greatest danger comes from Syrian-backed radical Palestinians operating out of Damascus.
Aware of the seriousness of the threats coming from these anti-Arafat groups, President Bill Clinton called on Assad to silence them. His reply is intriguing but troubling. Assad will not do what Clinton requested. Instead, he carefully stated that while Syria is not opposed to the Israeli-PLO accord, political considerations at home limit his ability to pressure the Palestinians. Having recently demonstrated his ability to quell anti-Israel violence in south Lebanon, such a statement strains credulity.
It is clear that Assad is keeping his options open. Should he exploit his influence with anti-Arafat Palestinian and Lebanese radicals to oppose the Israel-PLO accords? Having witnessed the political gains that so swiftly accrued to Arafat as a result of his compromise, will Assad calculate that he can secure political and economic benefits by throwing his weight behind the Israel-PLO process and/or agreeing to comparable evolutionary progress in the Golan Heights?
Policy-makers in Washington are reluctant to push Assad on the Golan Heights out of concern that genuine progress might overload the political circuits in Jerusalem. While it is essential that the United States remain sensitive to Israel’s political volatility, Washington must not give Assad any room to maneuver, even if that means taking on the challenge of the Golan Heights sooner rather than later.
The United States should act immediately by prompting Arab and European leaders to bolster the accord by undertaking diplomatic initiatives of their own to persuade Damascus to unambiguously support it. (This approach worked in Lebanon this summer.) Such a campaign should also be aimed at persuading other Arab countries to take a range of political and economic steps to reinforce the willingness of Israelis and Palestinians to move the peace process forward.
The centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy should be to persuade Arab and non-Arab Muslim states to end their political and economic boycotts of Israel.
While the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and individual Arab states would clearly signal the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, no single step would yield greater tangible benefits than the end of the Arab primary and secondary economic boycotts. Normal commercial relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors will do more to improve the quality of life of the peoples of the area than any infusion of outside economic aid.
For Israel, the end of the primary boycott, which prohibits trade and commerce between Arab states and Israel, would have as great a psychological impact as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. The structural distortions of the region’s economy would quickly dissolve under the natural flows of commerce. The U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement is a tool that might also benefit Arab countries.
As a practical matter, there is no better way for people to learn to live together than through the natural evolution of human relationships generated by commerce. A comprehensive and lasting peace can only thrive if there is people-to-people contact, not only government-to-government relations.
While relatively strong and geographically distant countries such as Morocco may be ready to move quickly toward Israel, it is essential that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states be persuaded to act as well. Their economic wealth, political importance and geographic proximity to Israel create numerous opportunities for commercial and economic links through Jordan to the West Bank, Israel and Gaza.
U.S. influence in the Middle East and the Gulf is at an all-time high. It is essential that Washington use this influence to consolidate the region’s tenuous stability by further isolating the radical regimes in Baghdad and Tehran and by linking the Arabian peninsula to Egypt through Israel and Jordan. Although uncertainty remains the only constant in the Middle East, America must lead with vigor and vision if it is to promote the peace process while ensuring that the dramatic advances of recent weeks are not derailed by radical opponents of peace in the Middle East.*