Next president must protect U.S. in Mid East whirlwind

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, December 2, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — America’s great national uncertainty ends in a matter of days. But the Middle East’s new time of confusion stretches months ahead, promising sharp surprises and explosive problems for the new U.S. administration.

Nearly a decade of relative stability in Arab-Israeli affairs has been swept away by the spectacular failure of the Camp David peace talks last summer and the shock of two months of bloody Palestinian insurrection and overwhelming Israeli military retaliation this autumn.

The inflated reputation of Uncle Superpower — of the United States as a uniquely omnipotent force able to settle foreign conflicts on its terms — is among the casualties of the renewed Arab-Israeli conflict. America’s role in the Middle East must be reassessed and altered to reflect a changed reality in the region.

This will be true whether the next president is Al Gore or George W. Bush, whether the next prime minister in Israel is Ehud Barak or Bibi Netanyahu, whether the next Palestinian leader is Yasser Arafat the peacemaker or Yasser Arafat the terrorist overlord.

Either Arafat can show up. A lifetime of guerrilla war, exile and betrayal by and of his fellow Arab leaders keeps Arafat always poised to jump to the next burning deck. To see Arafat committed irrevocably to any position is to misunderstand his dilemma and nature profoundly.

Diplomacy designed to lock Arafat into "finality" — the aim Barak set for himself at Camp David — turns out to be Mission Impossible. Arafat lives by the Napoleonic dictum that nothing is as permanent as the temporary.

This could bring another big surprise for Barak, who has been forced to call early elections in Israel for next spring. With polls solidly against him, Barak’s only chance for survival appears to be to strike a deal with the Palestinians and turn the election into a referendum on peace.

Logic suggests that Arafat would prefer to deal with Barak, who offered the Palestinians the most generous peace terms ever contemplated by an Israeli leader, and not with Netanyahu, who as prime minister argued endlessly over the terms of the Oslo peace accords and implemented them partially and grudgingly.

But logic is an often faulty guide in the Middle East. Arafat may well prefer to haggle with Netanyahu over details rather than face the pressures of a brave new world of finality.

An essential point has emerged with new clarity from the post-mortems conducted on the corpse of the Camp David failure: Barak’s own extreme uneasiness and disillusionment with the Oslo agreement that Arafat worked out with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1993.

Barak went to Camp David to force Arafat to choose. The Palestinian’s alternatives were accepting either a real and swift peace or the responsibility for blocking it, the Israeli leader’s comments since Camp David suggest.

Either way, the Oslo process would be overtaken. Israel would shed the difficulties of carrying out partial withdrawals and other incremental steps mandated by Oslo. Those interim measures in Barak’s view were bleeding Israel in domestic and international opinion and achieving nothing in return. Oslo was over.

That at least is what Arafat heard. Stoking the fires of rebellion in Gaza and the West Bank bought him time and an opportunity to blacken Israel’s image as thoroughly as the failure at Camp David had damaged his. It may be easier for Arafat to pursue those objectives with Netanyahu in power.

The first adjustment for U.S. policy is to recognize that the Oslo process cannot be meaningfully revived. That is a cost of Barak’s daring at Camp David.

And Washington can no longer rely on the relatively benign strategic environment that helped check political radicalism and terrorism in the Arab World in recent years.

Hopes for a fresh start in Syria have been dashed. Israeli officials accuse President Bashar Assad of giving Islamic guerrilla forces in southern Lebanon a green light for operations against Israelis.

Jordan’s untested young monarch, King Abdullah, has, as part of an accommodation to Iraq, shaken up his intelligence service to remove key figures who cooperated with the CIA against Saddam Hussein. Egypt is also promoting reconciliation with Iraq and has moved toward resuming a Cold War footing with Israel by recalling its ambassador.

In the Clinton years the United States had the luxury of operating as a facilitator of hopes for a better future in a calmer Middle East. The new president faces the more demanding task of asserting and protecting U.S. interests in the midst of a whirlwind. It is easily his most urgent priority.

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