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'88 May Be the Year for Middle East : Elections Shouldn't Get in the Way of New Peace Openings

February 09, 1988|MEL LEVINE | Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) is a member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East.

Conventional wisdom says that nothing can be done in the Middle East this year, an election year for Israel as well as for the United States. After a recent visit with government leaders in that region, I am convinced that the opposite is true: 1988 offers unparalleled opportunities for diplomacy, and the absence of diplomatic effort promises more tragedy. In particular, our presence in the Persian Gulf gives the United States leverage to move on both an Iran-Iraq and an Arab-Israeli peace.

There is little doubt that the Reagan Administration stumbled into the reflagging effort in the gulf. There is also reason to be concerned about the open-ended nature of our military commitment. Nonetheless, it is clear that our presence has improved our relations with the gulf states. Each of the Arab leaders with whom I met stressed that our expanded presence has had a positive regional effect. Their initial misgivings over our resolve, particularly after the Lebanon tragedy and the Iran-Contra fiasco, have given way to an appreciation of our commitment and our willingness to confront Khomeini's Iran.

The enhanced standing that the United States enjoys with the Arab states provides us with diplomatic leverage to press for an end to the Iran-Iraq conflict and, simultaneously, to achieve passage of the follow-up arms-embargo resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Our increased credibility in the Arab world should also be exploited to pursue a broader peace in the Middle East. An end to the Iran-Iraq War is only one side of the coin. The United States has aided the efforts of others to check Iran; we need help in our efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs. While we should not condition one on the other, we should make it clear to our Arab friends that we do expect much greater cooperation in an endeavor that clearly would benefit all parties in the region.

Practically every official with whom I met told me of his commitment to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If they are to be believed--and I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt--they must take concrete steps toward that end, principally:

--State publicly what they whisper privately about peace and Israel's right to exist within secure boundaries. No more hints and innuendo.

--End provocative public statements that attack Israel and employ objectionable references to Israel and to Jews. Such rhetoric--simply "playing to the masses," we are told--harms any effort to create a constituency for peace.

--Cease subsidies to the Palestine Liberation Organization that allow it to flourish even while it continues to terrorize Israel.

--Perhaps most important, provide Jordan with unequivocal diplomatic support to enter peace negotiations with Israel. Such support has been negligible in the past, and King Hussein is reluctant to move forward without broad Arab backing.

Such actions undoubtedly would reverberate throughout the region, and would send an unambiguous signal that the Arabs are ready for peace. The effect on Israel would be profound, as the political deadlock in that country over the peace process would likely be broken.

Israel, too, must again demonstrate the imagination to move toward peace. The current violence in the West Bank and Gaza should show that a political solution to the disposition of the territories is imperative. The Israeli government must pursue all possible avenues to get talks under way, even if it means agreeing to a compromise international framework like the umbrella of the next Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting--which would provide superpower auspices for negotiations--or perhaps the reconvening of the Geneva-type framework of the early 1970s, under which Egypt, Syria and Israel reached disengagement agreements with U.S. assistance.

This should not be too much to ask of either the Arabs or the Israelis, since a wider peace would benefit both sides. Further, the present circumstances in the Middle East create a climate for movement now in the peace process, if properly exploited by the United States and the relevant regional parties.

The de-facto alliance between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the other gulf states against Iran; the reintegration of Egypt into the Arab fold in spite of its peace treaty with Israel; the diplomatic and financial isolation in which Syria finds itself, and the leverage that our gulf presence gives us--all provide the United States with an opening toward a Mideast peace that did not exist six months ago.

Conventional wisdom aside, present circumstances suggest that 1988 could offer the most promising prospects for peace. The Egyptian president's visit to Washington along with reports that the United States is exploring a new peace initiative in the Middle East are encouraging signs. The alternative to meaningful movement is the status quo, and all interested parties--Arabs, Israelis and the United States--should by now realize the perils of standing still.

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