JERUSALEM — America can't be trusted. The United States plays favorites. Washington is not a reliable mediator.
These were the kind of complaints once heard throughout the Arab world whenever it was suggested that the way to peace in the Middle East passes through the United States.
But last week, this litany of hard feelings flowed not from Arab lips, but Israel's. America's closest ally in the Middle East was suddenly playing the role of wounded party, one subject to superpower bullying.
The specific cause of the pain were the double-barrel warnings from President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III that new foreign aid to Israel may depend on steps to peace and an end to Israeli settlement of the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip. Bush has vowed to delay guarantees that would make it easier for Israel to borrow $10 billion to house and provide jobs for new Soviet immigrants.
The salvoes appeared to have caught leaders of Israel's right-wing government off guard; Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir essentially pleaded for someone to wake him when it's over. "I hope this will pass like a bad dream," he said.
Underlying the emotional eruptions were perceptions of sudden change of tactics by the United States and perhaps a tidal change in the role of Washington in the region.
The United States is no longer acting as Israel's sole champion in a hostile world. With the Soviet Union's traditional support for the Arabs now worthless currency and the Arabs competing with Israel for the title of America's best friend, the United States is behaving as a detached mediator with no particular leaning to either side of the conflict. Or perhaps, trying to do the impossible: lean to all sides.
The tactical change alone was jarring. For six months, Secretary Baker had tried to steer clear of issues of substance dividing the warring parties in the Middle East, figuring that it was most important to get everyone to the negotiating table even if no one exactly knew the precise goals of the talks. The key, as explained by aides of Baker was to get everyone into a room, where just by being there, they would undergo a "mind-altering experience" that would lead to breakthrough on the region's intractable problems.
But the closer the conference gets, the more the Bush Administration finds itself doing exactly what it said it wouldn't: arguing with the Arabs and Israelis about the most fundamental and sensitive issues in the 43-year-old conflict.
Israel, for instance, was expecting to come to the table saying that it was set against a withdrawal from land won from Arab neighbors, in return for peace treaties. Syria and the rest of the Arabs, on the other hand, were coming armed with U.N. resolutions which call for Israel to withdraw from at least some territories.
Fine with Baker, as long as everyone showed up.
But by focusing on settlements, Bush and Baker tossed a matter of substance--perhaps THE matter--into plain view. Occupied territory is up for negotiation. In Israel, the immediate reaction was something that Baker had long hoped to avoid: Israel's participation was put into question.
Health Minister Ehud Olmert, a confidant of Shamir's, said Baker had created "a situation that requires us to give further consideration regarding our stance."
Transport Minister Moshe Katzav said U.S. positions had all but obliterated Washington's status as mediator. "Based on statements in the media relating to the secretary of state, in my opinion this status, this position of the honest broker no longer exists," he said.
Curiously, the Palestinians, who would directly benefit from a settlement freeze, seemed barely to recognize the cards they were dealt. "Suspicions about the outcome of the conference are building up," said a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan.
Apparently, not trusting their own ability to make gains at the talks, the Palestinian leaders asked for more assurances: that the negotiations will seek Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, will discuss the status of Israeli-controlled Arab districts of East Jerusalem, and may lead to a Palestinian state, perhaps in a confederation with Jordan.
Otherwise, the Palestinians, too, might stay away. "We need a signal from the United States that shows us that the peace conference will go in the right direction. We want to get on Mr. Baker's bus, but we need a lift up into it," the PLO official added.
Baker's willingness to give the warring parties "letters of assurance" which spell out American positions undermined the effort by Baker to keep divisive issues at bay. In a distant echo of Woodrow Wilson's principle of "open covenants, openly arrived at," Baker said that every party to the talks will be given a copy of all the assurances. "Once those assurance letters have been agreed to . . . then we intend to furnish them to everyone. There will be no secrets," he told the reporters traveling with him on his latest diplomatic odyssey.