NICOSIA, CYPRUS — While there have been loud lamentings in the United States that the Bush Administration has been indecisive, such criticism has not been echoed here in the crucial Middle East.
In its first 100 days the Administration, quietly but swiftly, brought about changes in U.S. Middle East policy that are beginning to look like a U-turn. Instead of automatic U.S. acquiescence with everything Israel says and does, there are now a dozen issues on which the George Bush and Yitzhak Shamir administrations openly differ. These are both long-term and strategic, short-term and tactical.
For the United States, the status quo is unacceptable; the objective of the peace process, which it strives to keep going, is a final, global settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Shamir government, under pressure from the continuing Palestinian intifada , or uprising, probably agrees that the current situation is unacceptable but is not planning for anything more than an interim settlement--within a time-frame of five years, no more.
The United States says that the underlying principle for the final settlement must be "land for peace," which Shamir rejects. He argues that Israel has already handed back all the occupied Arab territory demanded in U.N. resolutions 242 and 338. Bush disagrees: The provisions in 242 and 338 for Israeli withdrawal have not been fulfilled and his Administration "will hold the parties, as best the U.S. can, to a full implementation of the resolutions . . . the territory (Sinai) that has been ceded for peace (with Egypt) is not the end." Sooner or later, according to Washington, Israel must vacate the occupied territories.
Therefore, Washington insists, there must not be any further Israeli annexation of occupied Arab territory nor any extension of Israeli sovereignty over it. In flat contradiction to this position, Shamir, who strives for Greater Israel, has said repeatedly and openly that Israel will never withdraw, not even an inch, from what the Israelis refer to as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.
The objective of the peace process is variously interpreted by the three parties now involved. The Palestine Liberation Organization demands the right to self-determination according to its "legitimate national rights," leading, ineluctably, to an independent Palestinian state--already proclaimed, and recognized by more than 35 governments. That independent state could and should have a linkage with Jordan.
The United States and Israel are agreed in not wanting any such state, but beyond that they part company. The United States concedes "Palestinian political rights," which could lead to some sort of Palestinian authority or entity on the West Bank in federation with Jordan. Shamir is not prepared to think of anything more than local self-government--municipal autonomy. The Palestinians insist that their state must control the land and water resources of its territory. Israel, by contrast, says that the land has been promised to it for use in perpetuity.
The single most emotional territorial issue is the control of Jerusalem, specifically Arab East Jerusalem, where the Holy Places are situated. Israel claims that in 1967 East Jerusalem became, forever, the reunited capital of the Jewish state. Washington has never officially recognized that claim, a current point of difference.
In a strategic sense, the Bush and Shamir governments differ on the basic nature of the Palestinian struggle. Shamir condemns the intifada and any armed attack on Israel from outside as "terrorism." Even former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, a devoted friend of Israel, said that the intifada was not terrorism; so does Secretary of State James A. Baker III. The State Department further says that attacks from outside Israel on military targets are unhelpful but not terroristic in nature.
There was a split between the United States and Israel on tactics and modalities of the peace process even under the Reagan Administration which began direct, if low-level, talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the teeth of fierce opposition from Israel. In the last three months, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to badger Washington into breaking off these talks, but the U.S.-PLO contacts in Tunis continue and have, in effect, become an indirect dialogue between Israel and the PLO.
Washington has cautiously come round to saying that, if carefully structured, an international conference could be useful in helping to bring about a Middle East peace settlement; Shamir is adamantly opposed to any such international "interference."
Most of the numerous short-term, tactical differences between the Bush and Shamir administrations spring from the Israeli leader's offer of "free and democratic elections" in the occupied territories. Until a couple of months ago, Shamir opposed elections.