Mideast pact puts pressure on U.S. for support

September 02, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Having watched from the sidelines as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization worked out an astonishing peace agreement, the Clinton administration now faces its own crucial challenge: Who picks up the tab?

U.S. officials and Mideast analysts believe the United States must step in boldly to give the pact solid diplomatic and financial support.

The benefits of peace between Israel and the PLO and its neighbors are substantial for the United States. They include the long-standing goal of added security for Israel and increased regional stability with, perhaps, a measure of economic cooperation. Some even see the ties of erstwhile enemies becoming close enough to trigger an economic boom in the Mideast.

In taking a major step toward resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the pact allows the United States to concentrate more on a raft of other regional problems, including the threats posed by Iran and Iraq and Islamic extremists growing in influence and audacity.

"The challenge is to throw [U.S.] weight behind it," says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "There are not many good-news stories" for the United States overseas. "This will be an exercise in leadership."

The first task is assembling the money from a stingy Congress and from overseas donors that will provide an economic cushion for Palestinians as they assume control of the impoverished Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

"They [U.S. officials] have got to organize an international coalition to provide resources to improve living conditions on the ground," says Richard Haass, a Middle East adviser to President George Bush. The Palestinians, he said, need to equate progress at the peace table with "improvement in their lives."

The sums required are far less than the United States spends each year in support of Israel -- about $4 billion -- or of Egypt since the Egyptian government signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 -- about $2.5 billion.

And they are smaller than the pledges assembled by President Clinton to support another dramatic political change with long-term implications for the United States: democracy and economic reform in Russia.

Regional estimates call for up to $1 billion immediately to capitalize clinics and schools and other institutions in the West Bank and Gaza and then about $250 million annually.

But unlike the arrangements with Israel and Egypt since the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords, the financial burden won't fall on the United States alone. European governments have long supported the Palestinian cause financially and the Persian Gulf states, despite their leaders' loathing of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, are expected to contribute through the Arab League.

If the Israeli-PLO framework can be implemented quickly with Palestinians assuming control in Gaza and Israeli troops withdrawing, this could undermine the influence of opponents of peace with Israel, Mr. Quandt said. "You could see support for Hamas eroding," he said, referring to the Islamic fundamentalist group opposed to the peace process.

State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said drawing together the money in what's being called an Early Empowerment Fund "will require extensive work by the United States." A senior official said last night the United States was "prepared to take the lead."

Secondly, analysts say, the United States must press Syrian President Hafez el Assad to nail down his own agreement with Israel and at least not to use his influence with Arab radicals to undercut the Israeli-PLO pact.

Syria's reaction to an agreement reached behind its back has been cool, although some progress was reported yesterday in negotiations between Syria and Israel here. Today, the two countries are expected to confront the core issues of the type of peace envisioned and the extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, trying to get Mr. Assad on board, called the Syrian president Tuesday morning and arranged a meeting that may occur in Damascus, Syria, tomorrow.

The administration should "get on a bicycle to Damascus" with a high-level envoy "to reassure Assad that we have not gone to a Palestinians-first strategy and argue that it's easier now to have an Israel-Syrian agreement," Mr. Haass said.

The administration is considering a visit soon by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to Damascus, but a senior official said it won't occur next week.

"If Syria joins the parade, the Arab-Israeli conflict is on the way to being resolved," Mr. Quandt said.

Analysts said the United States has little choice but to resume talking to the PLO once Israel recognizes the organization that led terrorism against the Jewish state for almost three decades.

"It would look odd to be more Catholic than the Pope on this one," Mr. Haass said. The mainstream, Western-oriented Palestinian leader ship "will be people on the whole with whom we will not have difficulty working," Mr. Quandt said.

For years, U.S. involvement in the peace process and dispatch of billions of dollars in aid have been driven by two overriding interests -- ensuring Israel's survival as a Jewish state and a steady supply of Persian Gulf oil to the West.

Mostly, Washington has tried to encourage Israel and the Arabs just to talk about substance. And in reaching a deal between themselves, rather than having one shoved down their throats, they have created a more durable peace, analysts said.

"This is what we wanted all along," said Mr. Haass.

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