An elusive post-war Mideast peace

William Schneider

January 28, 1991|By William Schneider

AT HIS Jan. 18 news conference, President Bush described his vision of the world after the Persian Gulf war. "When all this is over," the president said, "we want to be the healers, we want to do what we can to facilitate what I might optimistically call a New World Order. But that New World Order should have a conciliatory component to it."

It's not hard to imagine what the No. 1 item on the post-war agenda will be. After Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is out of the way, the biggest remaining threat to Middle East stability and world peace is the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israelis fully expect that after the war, there will be a regional peace conference and considerable pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories it has occupied since 1967. That is why the Israeli government is storing up chits to use in the bargaining process.

Israel's decision, at least for the time being, not to retaliate for the Iraqi missile attacks on its cities, gives it some very big chits indeed. Israel has done its part to limit the scale and casualties of the gulf war. America owes Israel. And Israel knows it.

The evidence suggests that Israeli attitudes toward the Arabs are hardening, which is understandable, given what has happened to Israel. The evidence also suggests that U.S. pTC attitudes toward Israel are softening, which is also understandable, given what Israel has done in the opening phase of the war. All of which may make it harder to get a comprehensive peace settlement after the war is over.

The Israelis certainly won't be in any mood to compromise. Not after the Iraqi missile attacks that exposed Israel's vulnerability and dramatized the true nature of Arab intentions. To make matters worse, Iraq's acts of terrorism were officially acclaimed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and by Palestinians in Jordan and the occupied territories -- the very people with whom Israel is supposed to compromise.

Israeli attitudes have hardened for another reason: the influx of as many as 1 million Soviet Jews. The immigrants will swell the Jewish population -- and the Israeli army -- by more than 25 percent within the next three years. No one knows exactly what impact they will have on Israeli politics. Having risked everything to flee Soviet oppression, however, they are not likely to take risks with their new country's national security and survival.

The Palestinian enthusiasm for the Iraqi cause will probably diminish American enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause. U.S. leaders and the American public have been showing greater interest in the Palestinians, and greater exasperation with Israel, since the uprising against the Israeli occupation began in December 1987. The Reagan administration decided to negotiate with the PLO. The Bush administration made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of its Middle East policy.

According to the polls, public sympathy for the Arabs, and particularly for the Palestinians, grew steadily in 1989 and early 1990, while pro-Israel sentiment declined. In polls by Louis Harris and Associates Inc., for example, the share of Americans who called Israel either a friendly nation or a close ally dropped from 81 percent in 1984 to 65 percent in 1989 and 56 percent last March. In surveys taken for Times Mirror Co., opinion about Israel went from 5-2 favorable in 1987 to an even split last May.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States took a stand against Arab aggression and feelings about Israel began to improve. Last August, just after the Iraqi invasion, Times Mirror found that opinion toward Israel had turned favorable again, by 48-38 percent. In Harris' survey, the percentage who called Israel friendly or a close ally jumped back up to 73. It seems reasonable to assume that since war began on Jan. 16, Israel's image has improved markedly. "Israel has not looked so good in American eyes since the late 1960s," a specialist on U.S.-Israeli relations told the New York Times.

When new calls for Israeli concessions are made, Israel can certainly expect less pressure and more understanding from the United States. The administration has steadfastly rejected all efforts to create a linkage between the Iraq-Kuwait problem and the Israeli-Arab problem.

On the other hand, the diplomatic focus has shifted from the "internal" conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to the international conflict between Israel and the Arab states. That is an arena in which compromise is likelier, after the Iraqi threat is removed.

Moreover, the United States has delivered on its security commitment to Israel. For the first time ever, U.S. soldiers are participating in Israel's defense. The military relationship could develop into a formal strategic pact between the United States and Israel, something that was discussed but never acted upon in the 1970s.

Anything that makes Israel feel more secure is likely to advance the peace process. In the end, however, if Saddam Hussein's actions make a peace settlement with Israel more difficult, then he will have achieved one of his principal goals, even if his regime ends up being destroyed.

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