by Bishara A. Bahbah
The Middle East peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors is fal¬tering and is in danger of collapse. The co-sponsors of the peace talks - the United States and Russia - cannot escape part of the blame.
By definition, co-sponsorship implies an equal role in terms of influence and activity, if not in the nature of that role. The U.S.-Russian partnership in the co-sponsorship is lopsided. Russia has accepted a junior, if not an insignificant and often symbolic role in the sponsorship of the Middle East peace talks. The United States has been allowed to play the key role in bringing parties together, in setting agendas and venues, in pushing and prodding, and in allowing one party or the other to unjustifiably flaunt an existing agreement or understanding.
Russia's apparent weakness can be blamed on its preoccupation with its internal political situation. The current phase of the Middle East peace process was launched at the Madrid peace conference convened by the United States and the former Soviet Union October 30-November 1, 1991. Two months later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Soviet Empire col¬lapsed, and the Soviet Union as it was known at the end of 1991 began to unravel. A weakened, chaotic, and smaller Russia inherited the mantel of the Soviet Union in the co-sponsorship of the Middle East peace talks. Hitherto, Russia has been preoccupied with challenges to its territorial integrity, to its internal economic and political stability, and to its vastly diminishing role as superpower.
Russia, this "new" co-sponsor, lacks the political, financial, and econom¬ic clout in comparison to the United States and, for that matter, in compar¬ison to the former Soviet Union. This, in turn, has meant that many Arab countries engaged in the peace process which had viewed the Soviet Union as their ally, their main source of advanced military equipment, and their political patron, have lost their "real" sponsor in the Middle East peace talks.
Washington's Monopoly of Influence
Undoubtedly, this has created a serious imbalance in the "co-sponsorship" aspect of the Middle East peace process. The United States, Israel's staunchest ally, has effectively become the predominant sponsor of the peace talks. Ironically, this has meant that not only are Israel and the United States not taking Russia's concerns and views as seriously, but also that the Arab side has been forced to place a much diminished weight on Russia's views and initiatives. Even the selection of Washington, D.C. as the venue for the bilateral peace talks between Israel and the Arabs reflect¬ed the predominant concern among the parties of the region to be close to the center of power - the United States.
This new-found monopoly on influence in the peace process has not escaped Washington's astute policymakers. Although the United States professes to be an "honest broker" in the peace talks, actions speak louder than words. Former President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker III came the closest of any U.S. administration since President Dwight Eisenhower to being honest brokers. By comparison, the Clinton Administration is unquestionably the most pro-Israeli administration ever. This has been demonstrated in the U.S. attitude toward the peace talks, particularly between Israel and the PLO.
The failure of the U.S. sponsorship of the peace talks and its failure to rec¬ognize and keep up with the changes in the Middle East itself was high¬lighted to the world when Israel and the PLO, on their own and without U.S. involvement or even knowledge, decided that the bilateral peace talks in Washington were on a dead-end path. They both began direct secret talks in Oslo.
The moment the announcement was made about the successful conclu¬sion of the Oslo talks, the United States scrambled to redefine its role and give new impetus to its faltering leadership. Washington tempted both Israel and the PLO with an elaborate White House ceremony to formally sign the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO. To the hun¬dreds of millions of spectators worldwide, President Clinton became the "chief" sponsor of the historic event. Clinton was seen gently prodding Yitzhak Rabin to shake Yasser Arafat's hand.
To its credit, Washington then took the lead in quickly organizing a donors' conference to provide aid to the new fledgling Palestinian entity. It contributed about twenty per¬cent of the funds raised. In real terms, however, the $500 mil¬lion, over a four-year period, pledged by the United States paled in comparison to the $3 billion in cash Israel receives annually from the United States.
On other matters, the United States has taken Israel's side and adopted its viewpoint whenever conflicts have arisen between Israel and the PLO. When Israel declared that it was not ready to meet the very first deadline agreed upon in the Declaration of Principles, the United States accepted Israel's decision and justification for the delay. More recently, the Clinton Administration has tolerated ¬— with no criticism — the Israeli Government's decision to delay
the redeployment of its troops from populated areas in the West Bank, its active plans to expand West Bank settlements, and its balking at allowing Palestinian elections, all in the name of security. Clearly, the U.S. position comes at the Palestinians' expense.
In a sign of frustration with both the United States and Israel, Yasser Arafat appealed for European help. On a visit to France in February of this year, Mr. Arafat called upon France and the European Union to give impe¬tus to the peace process to pull it out of its current impasse.
Even in terms of the economic aid pledged to the Palestinians, the United States has failed to effectively help the Palestinians set up their institutions to carry out the huge task of development. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has been slow, clumsy, and confused. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have not fared any better. For most Palestinians, the peace process has ushered in a new level of misery. Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, who recently retired as Israeli military coor¬dinator for the Palestinian Occupied Territories, estimates that the stan¬dard of living among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has dropped by one-fourth since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) last summer.
With regard to Syria, it seems that Israel is convinced that this is one case that warrants direct and active U.S. involvement. Although many of Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visits to the region in the past eigh¬teen months were geared to nudge Syria and Israel to reach an agreement, little progress has been achieved. Syria has stated consistently and unequivocally that it is willing to make full peace with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. The United States has been unable, or possibly unwilling, to secure a com¬mitment from Israel that it would withdraw fully from these territories.
To complicate matters, Israel's Minister of Construction and Housing, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, declared on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., and for the first time ever by a member of Israel's current cabinet, that "there will be no total return to the borders that separated Syria from Israel prior to the 6th of June, 1967."
Since Syria has been unambiguous about its main requirement for full-fledged peace with Israel, it is clear that no movement is likely to occur on the Syrian-Israeli front. The Clinton Administration had indicated its will¬ingness to support the positioning of U.S. observers on the Golan Heights. The United States understands that any significant Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights will require massive U.S. aid to help Israel relocate its key military installations. Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration is unwilling or unable to extract a clear commitment from Israel on its terri¬torial intentions in the Golan Heights.
In Israel's dealings with Arab countries, Jordan has been the least com¬plicated interlocutor. Very little U.S. intervention was needed to move both sides to agree on the elements of a peace treaty. Jordan requested that its debt to the United States be forgiven. The United States accepted in princi¬ple to reward Jordan and forgive, albeit gradually, this debt.
With regard to the multilateral peace talks, here again, the United States has been playing the key role in pushing the process forward. Russia's con¬tribution, in terms of policy, direction, and resources, has been minimal. Although other countries were shut out by the co-sponsors from the bilateral peace negotiations, on the multilateral peace talks, other parties, partic¬ularly the European Union (EU), Japan, and Canada were allowed leading roles in organizing the multilateral working groups. More importantly, the EU and Japan have emerged as the key financiers of this process - a role the United States has been happy to relegate to them, given the onslaught on U.S. foreign aid by Republican Congressional leaders.
U.S. Role Critical
When it was agreed by all the participants that the multilateral peace talks should be directed by a steering committee, the primary function of this steering group was to oversee the activities of the five working groups and to affect any changes in the structure, composition, and the operating pro¬cedures of these talks.
Although the steering group has been the supreme body in the multi¬laterals, up until early 1994, it played an essentially passive ceremonial role — with the exception of the United States itself. The steering group was intended to acknowledge the receipt of reports from the working groups and set the dates and venues for the next round of talks.
In early 1994, a new phase emerged in the role of the steering committee of the multilateral peace talks. According to Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and at the urging of the regional parties in the multilateral steering group, the steering group planned to take a much more active role in trying to increase the pace and scope of the working groups.
In this new and redefined mandate, the United States continues to play the critical role in moving the process forward.
This critical assessment of the role of the co-sponsors of the Middle East peace is in no way intended to imply that there is no need for sponsorship of the Middle East peace talks. My main conclusions are twofold: the first is that Russia has effectively played a minor role in its co-sponsorship of the peace talks, and the second is that the United States has not fulfilled its role as an honest and fair broker. Its approach is one-sided and in most cases favors Israel.
The United States needs to reassess the function and approach of its co-sponsorship of the Middle East peace talks if it is to positively affect any progress in the talks between Israel and Syria, and if it is serious about sal¬vaging the stalled peace talks between Israel and the PLO.