Contain The Middle East Violence

Little was expected of the Middle East summit at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt--and it has been true to expectations. Under extreme pressure from President Bill Clinton and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat agreed to try to stop his people from attacking Israeli troops in the occupied territories, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to lift Israel's blockade of the Palestinian areas and pull his troops back to their usual bases. The hopes are that the violence will gradually subside, but nothing was signed, and it is far from certain that Arafat will be able to persuade increasingly militant Palestinian youths to desist.

That leaves the Middle East shakier than at anytime since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace pacts with Israel, could face pressure to cool economic and political ties with the Jewish state. That would be a huge setback for the easing of tension between Israel and the Arabs that has been taking place since the landmark peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

Yet there is no cause for panic. Egypt and Jordan are extremely unlikely to be drawn into any sort of military confrontation with Israel. The oil market's obsession with Israeli/Palestinian conflict also looks overdone at present. The Gulf Arabs are signaling that they have no intention of using oil as a weapon. They should be taken at their word unless matters deteriorate drastically.

After the damage of recent weeks, it is probably unrealistic for President Clinton to restart serious peace talks any time soon. Instead, the U.S. should be doing its best to prevent Israeli/Palestinian violence from spreading. That means the U.S. should urge restraint on Israel, while Arab moderates such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia put their own pressure on Arafat to calm things down. After all, they are the ones who have much to lose if instability spreads throughout the region.

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