How Clinton Can Help Keep The Peace

It didn't take long for the carping to start. Even before Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed their historic peace agreement on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, foreign policy insiders were sniping that President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher were mere spectators in the diplomatic drama. If dealmeisters George Bush and James A. Baker III were still in charge, the talk went, the U.S. would have maintained stewardship of the secret negotiations.

But it may not have been a bad idea to have America wait in the wings through the early phases of the reconciliation. The Israeli-Palestinian accord may ultimately prove more durable than one achieved by Presidential arm-twisting and shuttle diplomacy. "The fact that the parties sorted out a lot of tough issues on their own means they'll feel more responsibility for them," argues William B. Quandt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Now that Israel and the PLO have taken the critical first steps toward mutual recognition and self-rule for Palestinians, however, it's time for Washington and other nations to play far more prominent supporting roles. Securing the peace will require that the U.S. maintain its large financial presence in the region--and coax others to pony up. Otherwise, a comprehensive Middle East settlement could still be an elusive dream.

"UP THE ANTE." For starters, Uncle Sam can continue to contribute the $5 billion in combined annual assistance that America has provided Israel and Egypt since the 1978 Camp David accords. Trimming aid now--as some on Capitol Hill suggest--would unnerve already-anxious Israelis and undermine Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just as Egypt's courageous peace with Israel has been vindicated. To set an example for others, Washington ought to boost the modest $25 million a year it has been channeling to private charities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "To be a leader in this, we have to up the ante a bit," says Peter Gubser, president of American Near East Refugee Aid, a private Washington-based organization that provides financial assistance to the region's refugees.

There are limits to what the U.S. can do, though. Politically and fiscally, it was easier at the time of the 1978 Camp David agreement to plow substantial sums into the Mideast. The budget deficit was not as daunting. And in a cold-war context, it was worth the enormous investment to woo Egypt away from Soviet influence and prevent another Middle East war. Now, with Washington facing serious budget constraints, it can't be expected to provide the bulk of the $3 billion or so that the World Bank and other institutions think will be needed over the next decade to shore up the crumbling infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza.

What can the Clinton Administration do? Initially, provide some seed money and marshal generous pledges from wealthy Arab states, Europe, and Japan. The President's suggestion of a donors' conference is a good first step. Despite their current-account deficits and depressed oil prices, the Gulf States have the wherewithal to provide the lion's share of the money--and it's in their self-interest to do so. Creating economic stability in the West Bank and a newly autonomous Gaza would blunt the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism--the gravest threat to regional stability. And the Europeans, longtime supporters of the Palestinian cause, also could be called on to put their money where their mouths have been.

DOGGED DIPLOMACY. If Washington can legitimately avoid additional financial obligations, it cannot dodge new diplomatic responsibilities. With the PLO in line, the U.S. can urge the rest of the Arab world to begin to normalize relations with Israel, including ending the economic boycott. Dogged, hands-on diplomacy will be needed to persuade Israel and Syria to move to resolve the trickier issue of the Golan Heights. The myriad contacts, forged over decades, that made it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to mediate their own deal simply don't exist between Jerusalem and Damascus.

Much of the critical scut work to lay a foundation for progress can be accomplished by foreign service professionals at the State Dept. But there inevitably will be roadblocks along the way that require a high-profile Presidential assist. From the start of his Presidency, Bill Clinton has been reluctant to let foreign policy overshadow his cherished domestic agenda. And he could easily be distracted by his drive for health-care reform and his effort to reinvent government. But Clinton has the first opportunity in a generation to help engineer a genuine regional political settlement in the Middle East. It would be a mistake to let it slip from his grasp.