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A New-Old Vision for Mideast

IT is ironic that, in the midst of the Gulf crisis, the Bush administration has been unable to facilitate the smooth processing of a $20 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, an ally it not only is sworn to defend but to whose defense it has already sprung. The administration's difficulties reveal in the starkest possible fashion the degree to which Washington has failed to articulate its long-term vision of its relationship not only with the Saudis, but with other regional allies and with Israel as well. Instead, its response to congressional unease about Saudi military requirements and their impact on the Mideast has merely been to regroup, retrench, and revise the arms proposal into two slices. It should therefore come as no surprise that, in the absence of any supporting vision or clear rationale, Israel's supporters see little in the sale other than a threat. In fact, the White House can build upon the germ of a vision that many of its leading officials first articulated in the early 1980s, when it was hoped a series of parallel bilateral strategic relationships might be structured between the US and its Israeli, Egyptian, and Saudi friends. That vision was premature. Israel under Menachem Begin was a difficult partner to work with; the Saudis were in no mood for open cooperation with the US; Anwar Sadat's assassination called into question the future of US-Egyptian and Israeli-Egyptian ties.

Many of the elements of the strategic vision of the early Reagan years have withstood the test of time, however. The web of Israeli-American security relations has grown out of recognition since the early 1980s and especially since the friction that arose between US and Israeli forces in Lebanon in 1983. Matters once considered taboo, such as joint exercises, are now openly discussed. Indeed, the degree of cooperation between what are now routinely described as allies (once a verboten term) has given Jerusalem the confidence to forego its own anti-Iraqi impulses. Instead it has chosen to abide by the US preference that it maintain a low profile in the Gulf.

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At the same time, Riyadh's fateful decision to call in US troops has so fundamentally changed the nature of the Saudi-American relationship as to render as secondary the issue of whether US troops will remain on the kingdom's soil after the crisis. Far more important is the fact that the US no longer will be viewed as an ``over the horizon'' power, a remote, uncertain ally that had never in practice sprung to the aid of the House of Saud. The depth of the US-Saudi relationship, the degree of trust between the two countries, promises to be greater than before.

Last, Egypt has again emerged as the fulcrum of the Middle East even as it has remained a steadfast American ally and a critical interlocutor for Israel. The Israeli-Egyptian peace has withstood the vicissitudes of a decade, not least of them having been Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Indeed, Egypt has confounded even the cleverest of Middle East pundits. Who in the mid-1980s would have predicted Egypt would return to the Arab fold; serve as the seat of the Arab League; mend its fences with Syria (Assad made the trip to Cairo, not vice versa); emerge as Saudi Arabia's leading Arab defender in word and deed - and all the while maintain formal relations with Israel? Surely Hosni Mubarak has been the most underrated statesman in the region.

There is no way to ascertain whether, in the long run, the commonalities of the key moderate states, Israel included, will overcome the differences among them. Nevertheless, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia now embody the components of a major strategic realignment in the Middle East, one that allows the US to serve as both catalyst and foundation. Indeed, Egypt's pivotal role enables it to bridge a Saudi-Israeli gap that could yet narrow, particularly with US prodding.

The US must look beyond the current crisis. It must envisage a policy that goes further than merely sustain three parallel relationships in the region, which at any time could run afoul. Instead, Washington should actively formulate and pursue a more coherent regional relationship. In such a structure, there could be a Saudi pillar in the Gulf; an Israeli pillar in the Eastern Mediterranean; and an Egyptian belt linking and binding the two - and building upon common concerns.

Would the articulation of such a construct have saved the Saudi arms sale? Perhaps not. Unless some such vision is propounded in the near future, however, not only arms sales, but other aspects of our relations with these three countries could yet be subject to the political whims of the moment, to the resulting detriment of prospects for regional stability over the longer term.

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