Growth of Islamic Fundamentalism Provides Incentive for Israeli-Arab Talks

With the announcement Wednesday that the stalled Middle East peace process will resume with talks in Washington April 20, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has achieved the goal of his February trip to the region. This development offers tantalizing hints, despite continue sparring over the deportation of Islamic militants from Israel, that a breakthrough in the peace negotiations is possible.

By their nature, diplomatic breakthroughs require high risk strategies, which is why they occur so infrequently. Nevertheless, a window of opportunity now exists for peacemaking, if political leaders have the courage to take bold steps.


Growing political divisions within the Palestinian community, symbolized by the rise of the fundamentalist group, Hamas, seriously complicate peacemaking efforts. But the ascendancy of Hamas also creates new common ground between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel. The longer the stalemate over the deportees continues, the more it benefits fundamentalist forces

that are at war with Israel and at odds with secular grovernments in the region.


This common thread in Israeli and secular Arab thinking is unlikely to be publicly acknowledged. Israeli officials cannot give Hamas the satisfaction of believing its militant tactics can soften government policy. Nor can Arab officials turn their backs on the deportees, even if they and their colleagues would not be welcome within their borders.

The expulsions have touched a particularly sensitive nerve, as they reinforce worst-case fears of extremist Israeli tactics to maintain a Jewish state within expanded borders. Israeli detentions of Palestinians have also drawn criticism, but Egypt and Jordan have also resorted to this practice against domestic threats from fundamentalists and other groups.

Despite professions of solidarity with the deportees, Egyptian and Jordanian officials can only look warily at the rise of Hamas. Egyptian revenues from tourism have been severely reduced as a result of sporadic attacks on Western visitors instigated by Islamic fundamentalists. In Jordan, an Islamic bloc has gained a majority in the parliament, constituting a natural political alternative to continued rule by King Hussein's Hashemite line.

Among Arab states bordering Israel, only Hafez Assad's Syria, which has dealt with domestic threats by killing dissenters and leveling their neighborhoods, appears immune from this Islamic wave, built upon classic sources of discontent: poverty, poor government services, corruption and an aversion to all things Western. As Tahseen Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomat and adviser to the late President Anwar el Sadat succinctly notes, "We have not solved the problem of Islam and modernity."

A common, but necessarily unstated, concern over the risk of Islamic fundamentalism is in itself insufficient to achieve peace in the Middle East, but it does lend a greater sense of urgency to the effort. Perhaps for this reason, during a recent two-week trip to the region, Arab intellectuals and Israeli government officials repeatedly talked to me about the need for concerted efforts by the new Clinton administration to move the peace process forward.

The bluntest expression of this view was by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who considers 1993 to be the crucial year for peacemaking in the region. While recognizing the need to wait a few months for the Clinton administration to get organized, Mr. Peres and other Israeli officials express the hope that Secretary of State Christopher will play an active role in the search for diplomatic solutions.

This view was inconceivable when Israel was governed by a Likud coalition led by Yitzhak Shamir. Now that Mr. Shamir has been replaced by Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition, the Clinton administration has gained a partner less averse to risk-taking.

How large the risks a Rabin government is willing to run, however, are far from clear. In effect, Israel is being asked to exchange defensible borders for formal peace agreements but continued insecurity and greater reliance on outsiders. This exchange will be difficult to sell in Israel. To make matters worse, the longer the Rabin government delays tough choices, the harder it will be to make the necessary political compromises.


The rank order of threats facing Israel has changed markedly. In private conversations, Israeli strategists now worry more about ballistic missiles than tank armies. They speculate more about Iranian than Syrian military capabilities. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are now atop their public enemies list, rather than the Palestine Liberation Organization, with which public contacts have now been permitted by an act of the Israeli Knesset. For all its failings, at least the PLO is willing to negotiate with the State of Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad only recognize armed struggle.

Israel's current borders with Jordan and Syria are well sealed, but this doesn't help with the problems posed by ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, the promotion of Islamic fundamentalism through social service and religious organizations, and a Palestinian population that will double in twenty-five years.

The peace with Egypt struck at Camp David has helped Israel's security immensely. A similar peace with Syria, codified by treaty provisions, is now being contemplated by the Israeli public, abetted by hints in the press about potential deals in the making.

The geography of the Golan Heights mandates stark choices. From an Israeli security standpoint, it is clearly preferable to retain the high ground. If, for the sake of peace, Israeli forces pull back from the volcanic ridge atop the Heights, the military rationale for holding onto Syrian land below is unconvincing. The Israeli Defense Forces might just as well return to their pre-1967 border positions, from which Syrian artillery used Israeli settlements as target practice.

This outcome would suit Mr. Assad's need for a territorial settlement no less complete than that achieved by Mr. Sadat, but it would raise many sensitive security issues. When Mr. Shamir was prime minister, it was nearly impossible to have even a hypothetical conversation with Israeli government officials or conservative strategists about alternatives to an Israeli military presence on the Golan. Now these discussions are taking place, as Israeli analysts struggle with less-than-ideal alternatives to holding onto captured territory.

If any deal is consummated between Israel and Syria, it is likely to hinge on U.S. commitments to help Israel with intelligence and advanced weaponry. As in the Sinai disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, the United States also will be asked to provide monitoring arrangements for "thin-out zones" of reduced military equipment and for a buffer zone between the former combatants.


A symbolic U.S. military presence would serve as a powerful reminder of Washington's commitment to peace, which could be strengthened further by the deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops in the Golan, as in the Sinai.

Another central question is the degree of progress Mr. Assad would require on the Palestinian front to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Arab delegations want Israeli confirmation of Palestinian rights before proceeding with confidence-building and tension-reduction measures. Israel is presently loathe to agree to anything beyond Palestinian autonomy for limited governmental functions in parts of the occupied territories.

Syria and Jordan face pressures not to settle for peace with Israel without a breakthrough on the Palestinian front. Syria can withstand these pressures far better than Jordan, but only at the expense of its image as defender of pan-Arab interests. To complicate matters further, most Arab strategists and government officials abhor public discussions of anything but their preferred outcomes, ensuring that any settlement on the occupied territories will be bitterly received by many.

With the rise of Hamas, there are no guarantees that any solution negotiated by the Palestinian delegation and endorsed by the PLO leadership can be successfully implemented in Gaza or the West Bank. Tragically, this would not be the first time that Palestinians rejected half a loaf and wound up with none. If the Palestinians cannot agree on a negotiated settlement, would Mr. Assad and King Hussein proceed without them?

All of these questions hang in the air, waiting to be addressed by the Clinton administration. Secretary of State Christopher and national security adviser Tony Lake have assembled a team wise in the ways of the Middle East. They must now decide whether to settle for modest objectives and incremental steps, or to seek one or more major breakthroughs in the negotiations.

A recent trip to the region suggests that incrementalism will likely be held hostage to breakthroughs. A continued impasse over the deportees in southern Lebanon reinforces this view. If these dynamics prevail, the Clinton administration and Israel may have to move into a high stakes negotiation with significant potential gains and risks.


Michael Krepon is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, where he works on a project to promote confidence-building measures in regions of tension.