THIS is the most Israel-friendly administration in 50 years, and President Clinton is probably the most popular U.S. president in Israel ever. How is it, then, that the administration finds itself on the defensive in its mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians, unable to persuade Congress and the American public that its demands of the Israeli government are reasonable? If it cannot make the case when the question is how many slivers of land will Israel turn over to Palestinian control, how will the administration fare when much tougher final-status issues are negotiated in the next year?
The administration's biggest problem in making its public case is that it has pretended to be a neutral mediator, when, in fact, it is neither neutral nor just a mediator because significant U.S. interests are at stake.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to transform his disagreement with the United States into one of principle: Should Washington dictate to Israel the terms of an agreement? What most Americans, including U.S. Jews, saw as a reasonable U.S. proposal -- that Israel give back 13 percent of the land it occupies -- suddenly looked more like an ultimatum.
Yet, that's only part of the problem. More telling, the administration has failed to assert why its active involvement in the negotiations is critical to U.S. interests. This is something of a mystery because the case is so strong. Most Americans view the Middle East as vitally important. Israel and Egypt receive more than one-third of U.S. foreign aid. The Persian Gulf is the primary focus of U.S. military planning -- and budgeting. What happens in the peace process directly affects U.S. interests.
A unique relationship
The United States is certainly striving to be a "fair" mediator, but as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Martin Indyk put it, "Evenhandedness is not in our lexicon." The U.S. commitment to Israel, defined as a U.S. national interest, in no way parallels Washington's relationship with any other state in the Middle East. The degree of U.S. military and economic support for Israel is simply in a class by itself (Egypt is a distant second). In times of conflict or when Israeli security is at stake, no one doubts which side the United States would take. At the United Nations, the United States does not hesitate to use its veto power to protect Israeli interests.
In large part, the United States is mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict because it is the only party acceptable to Israel. It is unlikely that the Palestinians would have accepted a proposal for Israeli withdrawal from only 13 percent of the occupied territory if any other country had made it. Left on their own or to the mediation of others, the Palestinians would probably have rejected even a larger offer from Israel. Although the United States, as a mediator, always applies some pressure on both parties, it is clear, by the sheer asymmetry of power, that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is more often the recipient of such pressure than Mr. Netanyahu.
But there is the other side of the coin. U.S. economic and strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, where significant U.S. forces are deployed, would suffer if the peace process collapses. The Israeli government may see an advantage in dragging out the talks and postponing an agreement, but the United States will almost certainly face a new confrontation with Iraq in the coming months, which may result in a military showdown. The prospects of such a confrontation, and the consequences for the United States if it occurs, are inextricably linked to the tides of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
After the Gulf War, many analysts and policy-makers felt that the Arab-Israeli dispute was no longer central to politics and security in the Persian Gulf. Today, few people hold this view. Sure, a great deal of what happens in the gulf, including the degree of support among Arab states for U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran, is unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many important disagreements remain between the United States and its Arab partners on how best to ensure gulf security and to contain Iraq. But the ability and willingness of Arab governments to join the United States in an effective multilateral strategy to handle crises with Iraq is very much affected by the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace and by regional confidence in U.S. foreign policy.
In our interest
It is the recognition of this relationship between the U.S. commitment to Israel and its interests in Mideast oil that has led every president since Richard M. Nixon to regard a stable Arab-Israeli peace as an indisputable U.S. interest. A neutral mediator does not have a stake in the shape and terms of an agreement. But the United States has an interest in securing a deal that will have enough regional support to survive, and in having it sooner rather than later.
The United States does not have to be neutral to be a fair mediator. Agreements reached must be implemented by both sides, and Washington has a responsibility to make sure that they are -- and to lay markers when they are not. The United States, furthermore, cannot ignore the most basic interests of either side. Legitimate Israeli security concerns will remain a U.S. priority, recognizing that Israelis continue to face violence. But no fair mediator can ignore the insecure and humiliating lives Palestinians endure in fragmented pieces of territory after 50 years of conflict. These two issues cannot be separated or decided unilaterally. That is why U.S. mediation is central.
The administration's objective must remain the same: a fair agreement that is also viable. Unless it has given up on Mr. Netanyahu's will to deliver such an agreement, the administration has no choice but to work with him, for only he can seal an agreement as the elected prime minister of Israel. Having put so much on the line by launching its initiative, however, Washington cannot afford to back down. In the face of congressional criticism, the administration will do well to remember that the minute an acceptable agreement is reached, its critics will only applaud, and if the peace process collapses, everyone will be a critic.
Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat chair for population, development and peace at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 5/20/98