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Among the Levers for Peace . . . Bosnia : A series of unanticipated shocks jolted both sides, from the rain of Scuds onto Israeli soil to the loss of Bush and Baker.

September 01, 1993|STEVEN L. SPIEGEL | Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science at UCLA and the editor of "The Arab-Israeli Search for Peace."

Most observers are stunned by the PLO-Israel deal that has just been announced. They shouldn't be--and there's more to come.

The sea change in Arab-Israeli relations has been made possible by five shocks in the past three years that have altered the calculations of all the major players.

First, the end of the Cold War deprived the Arab side of its major patron, a superpower that had provided both military and diplomatic support. For parties like Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, this backing was crucial because it meant a steady flow of weaponry and spare parts. It also meant that the Arabs never had to face the full consequences of military defeat; the Soviets always bailed them out.

Second, the Persian Gulf War created unexpected incentives for both sides to pursue a peace settlement. It enhanced the virulence of Islamic fundamentalism, a development that appears far more menacing to many Arab regimes than to Israel and places several Arab parties and the Israelis in virtual tacit alliance against Arab extremists. Moreover, Yasser Arafat's foolish decision to back Saddam Hussein cost him diplomatic status worldwide and the financial largess of the Arab states, which increased pressure on him to take dramatic action to save his faltering leadership.

The war also changed Israel's security calculus. The impact of long-range missiles attacking Israeli soil meant that territory--the West Bank and the Golan Heights--became relatively less critical, and future developments in Iraq and Iran far more.

The third shock to hit the Arabs and Israelis was the victory of Labor over Likud in June, 1992.

Likud had assumed that the new international conditions meant that Israel could have it all: territory, peace, increased immigration and diplomatic standing. Even after peace talks began in October, 1991, with Arabs other than Egyptians talking to Israelis publicly for the first time, Likud did not believe that Arab leaders had changed their aim of destroying Israel. Labor took the opposite tack: Israel could not take full advantage of new opportunities unless it took serious risks, including gradual withdrawal from at least some of the territories it has occupied since 1967. The new Rabin government also concluded that Syria's Hafez Assad had decided on a new course and could be trusted to keep a deal. After months of frustration with Palestinian negotiators, it also reached the reluctant conclusion that Arafat was more willing and able to make concessions than were the Palestinians of the West Bank--hence the secret negotiations that led to the Gaza-Jericho agreement.

The shift in the Israeli government also put new pressures on the Arab side: If Rabin failed to achieve results, his fragile coalition would be vulnerable to replacement by the hawkish new Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

A fourth shock was the election of Bill Clinton last November. All of the Mideast leaders knew, respected and trusted George Bush and Jim Baker. While American participation will be critical to sealing the PLO-Israel deal and to facilitating a Syrian-Israeli agreement, a less activist Administration has succeeded in forcing the parties to confront one another directly.

The fifth and final shock that accelerated Arab and Israeli incentives comes from an unusual quarter: Bosnia. This hellish tragedy showed both Arabs and Israelis that post-Cold War politics would be played by new rules: If they got into a war, there might not be anyone to get them out of it. Bosnians today could be Palestinians tomorrow.

Bosnia had another unusual effect: Israel's strong backing for the Muslim side caused some Arabs to notice an Israel they had never seen before.

While the tentative new agreement between Israel and the PLO could break down--in the Middle East, if problems can arise, they usually do--a momentum has been established that will be difficult to stop. A bumpy ride is ahead, but it's going in the right direction.

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