Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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The subtleties of pressure

By James Zogby *

There was some speculation, just a few weeks ago, that the US would significantly downgrade its role in the Middle East peace process. Administration spokespersons dismissed such suggestions, saying only that the American role would change. No longer would the US expect to serve as compliance referee, but in all other respects, the role would remain as a critical facilitator and, if needed, as a mediator. This was somewhat in evidence during the secretary of state's recent visit to the Middle East and it will remain in evidence in the next year.

The past three years were painful for the peace process. Palestinians languished under the harsh conditions of an incomplete peace. They became poorer, less employed, with less freedom of movement and with less hope than even before the process began. During this time, in large measure due to the Israeli prime minister's obstructionism, the US drew closer to the Palestinians, establishing personal ties and an irreversible bilateral relationship with the Palestinian Authority. During President Clinton's historical visit to Gaza, the US came as close as possible to expressing support for Palestinian self-determination. And as Washington's subtle but real pressure on Israel's prime minister came to be felt, Israelis became engaged in substantial debate on the issues of peace.

Barak's victory was, in part, the result of the US having fostered this Israeli debate, just as Rabin's 1992 victory was helped by subtle pressure from the Bush administration. Now, with a new agreement, President Clinton and Secretary Albright face new challenges and responsibilities. If, as President Clinton declared, "a lasting, just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is now a step closer," and if such a peace is to be completed before the end of his term in office -- then the US has some heavy lifting to do in the next 12 months.

In the same remarks, noted above, Clinton also said, "The Israelis and Palestinians are doing their part... we must do ours." As a first step the president called on Congress "to fund fully the commitment we made when the Wye agreements were first signed."

The $1.2 billion for Israel and $400 million for the Palestinians have not yet been approved by Congress. With the new agreement the administration will have to press hard to get quick action from the legislature. Some members may seek to play partisan politics with the aid package, which Israel claims to need to help with redeployment plans and security requirements, and which the Palestinians need to build infrastructure and create economic opportunities. The danger from Congress, of course, is not to the Israeli request. Rather it is that some members of Congress will attempt to encumber the Palestinian aid package with stringent conditions. The administration has indicated that it will oppose such efforts.

This is not the only congressional challenge the administration will face. There are currently four separate Jerusalem-related bills before the Congress. The most dangerous of these seeks to remove the president's waiver authority and force an immediate move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The administration is committed to defeating these efforts and has recently received unexpected support for its position from Israeli Prime Minister Barak who, on a number of occasions, (including his visit to the US) told members of Congress "not to get out in front of the peace process."

In addition to its legislative efforts, the administration has committed itself to strengthening other incentives it has developed to encourage both the Israelis and Palestinians in their peacemaking efforts. For example, both Pentagon and State Department officials will be working with their Israeli counterparts to revitalise a Strategic Policy Planning Committee (SPPG) that will coordinate defence and policy issues between the two countries. This SPPG may prove worrisome to Arab states since it takes the traditional US commitment to Israel's military superiority and the US-Israeli strategic relationship to an even higher level than before.

The US will continue to build on its US-Palestinian Bilateral Commission (USPBC) and cooperation in those other areas that have developed during the past three years. PA President Yasser Arafat will soon arrive in Washington to meet with President Clinton and to convene a session of the USPBC. A new addition to the USPBC is its Business Advisory Group (BAG) that creates a private sector component to the developing relationship, something which parallels the US-Egyptian, US-Russian and other US bilateral commissions.

The BAG is designed to promote trade and investment and improve the overall business relationship between the US and the PA. After six long and troubling years, the US must begin to seriously address Palestinian economic development concerns. But until Israeli-imposed impediments to investment and development are removed, Palestinians will continue to be denied the economic fruits of peace, which can only complicate efforts to move forward the final status agenda.

Additional areas where the US will be involved are in the final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and in the effort to restart and bring to a conclusion the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace talks.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the latter two tracks, final status talks may present the US with its greatest challenge. However, if not addressed and assisted, these critical talks may collapse, presenting a sorry end to Washington's entire peacemaking effort.

When asked what role they intend to play during final status talks, administration officials, for the most part, indicate that their role will be "supportive" -- "to ease bumps in the road," or "to provide 'bridging' ideas, or to provide support for Israelis and Palestinians when they take risks for peace."

But if the process is to be completed in one year -- before the end of the Clinton administration -- then the US will have to consider playing an even more active and vigorous role. There are two factors Washington should consider as it projects its involvement during the next year. The first, of course, is the asymmetry of power that defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. This has, in part, shaped the negotiating process since the initial efforts to implement Oslo six years ago.

Palestinians have complained that, all too often, instead of negotiating, the Israelis have dictated terms which have left the Palestinians no option other than to tinker with details or reject them outright. Shimon Peres, Israel's former prime minister, admitted as much when he confessed "it's not as if we are negotiating with the Palestinians, we are negotiating with ourselves. The question is, how much are we willing to give them?"

The only leverage the Palestinians have is to say no and precipitate a crisis. And at this point, an examination of the maximum Israel appears willing to give in final status agreements and the minimum the Palestinians can accept makes it clear, that in one year, a crisis, in fact, may be the outcome of these talks.

For example, while Israelis now appear to be accepting the notion of a Palestinian state, their definition of that state is a recipe for disaster. The Palestinians simply cannot accept a tiny, fragmented state with limited sovereignty, with no control over borders, no connection to Jordan or Egypt and no presence in Jerusalem. What the US can do to avert a crisis is to help push the debate in Israel towards a greater understanding of the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and the consequences of a failed peace process.


* The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute.
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