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Mideast Is Ripe for U.S. Attention : Israel, Jordan Appear Ready for a Helpful Nudge Toward Peace

February 23, 1986|LEE H. HAMILTON | Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) is chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and chairman of the subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East

The failure of King Hussein to win the Palestine Liberation Organization's support for his efforts to start peace talks clearly was a setback, but it is not the end of the road. Jordan and Israel still want negotiations, and the challenge for U.S. diplomacy now is to put greater effort into making those talks happen.

In 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres tried to narrow Israel's differences with Jordan on conditions for starting peace talks. His speech at the United Nations in October was creative and forthcoming. Stalled ties between Israel and Egypt also began to loosen up. For his part last year, Hussein tried to be constructive and press a reluctant partner, Yasser Arafat, to join his peace venture. Israel and Jordan moved closer on the crucial questions of Palestinian representation and the relationship between an international conference and direct bilateral talks.

However, they apparently did not move close enough for the United States to become fully involved in their efforts. A stronger, more visible U.S. role earlier in 1985 could have made a difference. Instead, by year's end Peres and Hussein had edged back. While keeping peace options open, they took steps to protect their political flanks.

Why should the United States devote itself to a Mideast peace process when prospects for success seem increasingly remote? Because U.S. inattention in the past contributed to drift, escalation and, inevitably, to war. The human, financial and political costs of such conflicts have proved staggering for both the combatants and U.S. interests. The most important reason to pursue peace is that the parties themselves still want it.

If the United States is to move the process forward at this point, it must first become more involved. We do not need another full-scale U.S. peace initiative, which may suggest to some parties that we will extract concessions for them. But if we simply sit back and wait, the parties themselves will not resolve their differences. U.S. involvement requires creative, visible and vigorous diplomacy. The minimal role of the President and the secretary of state in the peace process last year has been noted by all the Mideast parties.

We must be willing to take risks and tolerate ambiguity--what the Israeli statesman Abba Eban called "constructive obscurity." We must do what we are asking Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to do: start a process without knowing precisely what its conclusion will be.

This may mean expanding contracts with Palestinians and beginning a dialogue with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, talking to only a few Palestinians initially and hoping to expand their number later. It may mean participating in an international peace conference without knowing how soon direct talks will follow, but direct talks between the parties should remain our firm goal.

We must have confidence that our involvement can help shape the outcome we seek. There is a risk of failure, but even greater risk in not trying.

We should avoid actions that could complicate efforts to restart the peace process or divert the attention of key parties. In particular, we should hold off new sales of sophisticated weapons to the region. The poor timing of the proposed arms sale to Jordan, and the signal sent to Hussein when the United States backed away from it, put the tension on what was really a side issue to the peace process. In 1978 Congress did not interfere with controversial arms sales to the Middle East precisely because there was a working plan for negotiations already in place. Arms sales may well have a role to play in support of peace talks, but those talks are not yet under way.

We must understand that renewed efforts on the peace process will help us deal with other problems, such as international terrorism. Certainly we need more effective programs in cooperation with our allies to contain terrorism. Those efforts will be enhanced by serious peace efforts that address one of the root causes of violence: the unsolved Palestinian question. A determined peace effort also would do more to reinvigorate bilateral ties with the governments of moderate Arab states than quick fixes such as arms sales or increased foreign aid.

We should rethink our approach to the Soviets and the Syrians, which continues to have a head-in-the-sand quality. The question is not whether to exclude the Soviets from the Middle East, because we cannot, but how to engage them constructively in support of peace efforts. Israel considers the restoration of diplomatic ties the necessary prerequisite for a Soviet role in an international peace conference. That may not be the test for us, but the Soviets will have to earn a place at the table. Soviet and Syrian interests are not always the same, and we should explore on a separate track the question of Syria's role in a possible international peace conference. Syria does not want to be left out, and we should recognize from past experience that it can play havoc if it is.

No Middle East peace talks have been held in four years. Despite pessimistic signs, U.S. diplomacy should strive in the coming months to build on the sincere desires of Prime Minister Peres and King Hussein to move toward peace. The opportunity that they helped to create is now in danger, and it will not last long in the absence of concerted U.S. diplomacy on its behalf.

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