Growth of Islamic Fundamentalism Provides Incentive for Israeli-Arab Talks

March 14, 1993|By MICHAEL KREPON

With the announcement Wednesday that the stalled Middle East peace process will resume with talks in Washington April 20, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has achieved the goal of his February trip to the region. This development offers tantalizing hints, despite continue sparring over the deportation of Islamic militants from Israel, that a breakthrough in the peace negotiations is possible.

By their nature, diplomatic breakthroughs require high risk strategies, which is why they occur so infrequently. Nevertheless, a window of opportunity now exists for peacemaking, if political leaders have the courage to take bold steps.

Growing political divisions within the Palestinian community, symbolized by the rise of the fundamentalist group, Hamas, seriously complicate peacemaking efforts. But the ascendancy of Hamas also creates new common ground between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Israel. The longer the stalemate over the deportees continues, the more it benefits fundamentalist forces

that are at war with Israel and at odds with secular grovernments in the region.

This common thread in Israeli and secular Arab thinking is unlikely to be publicly acknowledged. Israeli officials cannot give Hamas the satisfaction of believing its militant tactics can soften government policy. Nor can Arab officials turn their backs on the deportees, even if they and their colleagues would not be welcome within their borders.

The expulsions have touched a particularly sensitive nerve, as they reinforce worst-case fears of extremist Israeli tactics to maintain a Jewish state within expanded borders. Israeli detentions of Palestinians have also drawn criticism, but Egypt and Jordan have also resorted to this practice against domestic threats from fundamentalists and other groups.

Despite professions of solidarity with the deportees, Egyptian and Jordanian officials can only look warily at the rise of Hamas. Egyptian revenues from tourism have been severely reduced as a result of sporadic attacks on Western visitors instigated by Islamic fundamentalists. In Jordan, an Islamic bloc has gained a majority in the parliament, constituting a natural political alternative to continued rule by King Hussein's Hashemite line.

Among Arab states bordering Israel, only Hafez Assad's Syria, which has dealt with domestic threats by killing dissenters and leveling their neighborhoods, appears immune from this Islamic wave, built upon classic sources of discontent: poverty, poor government services, corruption and an aversion to all things Western. As Tahseen Bashir, a retired Egyptian diplomat and adviser to the late President Anwar el Sadat succinctly notes, "We have not solved the problem of Islam and modernity."

A common, but necessarily unstated, concern over the risk of Islamic fundamentalism is in itself insufficient to achieve peace in the Middle East, but it does lend a greater sense of urgency to the effort. Perhaps for this reason, during a recent two-week trip to the region, Arab intellectuals and Israeli government officials repeatedly talked to me about the need for concerted efforts by the new Clinton administration to move the peace process forward.

The bluntest expression of this view was by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who considers 1993 to be the crucial year for peacemaking in the region. While recognizing the need to wait a few months for the Clinton administration to get organized, Mr. Peres and other Israeli officials express the hope that Secretary of State Christopher will play an active role in the search for diplomatic solutions.

This view was inconceivable when Israel was governed by a Likud coalition led by Yitzhak Shamir. Now that Mr. Shamir has been replaced by Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition, the Clinton administration has gained a partner less averse to risk-taking.

How large the risks a Rabin government is willing to run, however, are far from clear. In effect, Israel is being asked to exchange defensible borders for formal peace agreements but continued insecurity and greater reliance on outsiders. This exchange will be difficult to sell in Israel. To make matters worse, the longer the Rabin government delays tough choices, the harder it will be to make the necessary political compromises.

The rank order of threats facing Israel has changed markedly. In private conversations, Israeli strategists now worry more about ballistic missiles than tank armies. They speculate more about Iranian than Syrian military capabilities. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are now atop their public enemies list, rather than the Palestine Liberation Organization, with which public contacts have now been permitted by an act of the Israeli Knesset. For all its failings, at least the PLO is willing to negotiate with the State of Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad only recognize armed struggle.

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