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Opportunities and Dangers For the Mideast Peace Process

THE people of the Middle East, Jews and Arabs alike, will remember 1993 as a historic turning point in their long, agonizing struggle. The year 1994 will test the limits of Israeli and Arab perseverance and challenge the leaders to advance creative solutions that defy rejectionism and fanaticism. This year holds both the prospect for great new achievements and the potential for disastrous failure.

* Egypt: Although Egypt is at peace with Israel, it is at war at home and is in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. During the second half of December alone, more than 18 Egyptians were killed, including 13 policemen. The establishment of an Iran-like regime in Egypt would have a catastrophic domino effect on the rest of the Arab states. It would end the Egyptian-Israeli peace, torpedo the peace process, and severely undermine United States interests. It is critical that the US works to ensure the continuation of a secular regime in Egypt. This year the US should orchestrate a ``Marshall plan'' for Egypt, which would include foreign investments and technological aid, with equal focus on industrial and agricultural development, to create millions of jobs and rebuild Egypt's disintegrating infrastructure.

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* Jordan: The Hashemite Kingdom has virtually concluded a peace agreement with Israel, and many of its economic aspects are being implemented. King Hussein, however, will not be in a position to sign a peace treaty with Israel before Syria also concludes, at a minimum, a declaration of principles or a peace formula with Israel. Moreover, given the strength of Jordan's Palestinian majority, even a comprehensive peace would not eliminate the country's vulnerability. Should Jordan's stability be undermined by an extremist Palestinian takeover, Israel and Saudi Arabia will lose a strategic buffer. A radical Jordan would be a natural partner to the Sunni Muslim-led Iraq. Israel and Jordan, with US support, must carefully build a political, economic, and security structure that enhances Jordan's role as a geopolitical buffer.

* Lebanon: Following 15 years of civil war, Lebanon is on its way to social and economic recovery. Although Israel occupies a narrow strip in southern Lebanon as a security zone, Israel has repeatedly stated that as soon as new security arrangements are put in place it will withdraw. The Iranian-backed Islamic militant group, the Party of God (Hizbullah), which opposes any agreement with Israel, remains the complicating factor. Because Syria controls Lebanon's affairs it seems that disarming Hizbullah will have to await a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

* Syria: For the past several months Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have been deadlocked over Syria's demand for an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan and Israel's refusal to commit to any pullback of its forces before Syria spells out its concept of peace. President Hafez Al-Assad's formula of ``full peace for full withdrawal'' may eventually provide the basis for Israeli-Syrian peace. Indeed it is doubtful that any Syrian president will relinquish an inch of territory. By the same token, no government in Israel will commit to a full withdrawal without full peace and iron clad security guarantees.

Beyond the territorial dispute there is the hidden issue of regional hegemony. Syria will seek to expand its sphere of influence over the emerging Palestinian entity and Jordan. Israel, realizing Syria's de facto dominance over Lebanon, would insist on keeping the Palestinians and Jordan in its own orbit. Israel and Syria will remain competitors long after they have concluded a bilateral peace agreement.

Syria holds the key to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. The US must become considerably more active in 1994 in persuading Israel to give up the Golan and lean as heavily on Syria to offer a peace of reconciliation with diplomatic, trade, and cultural exchanges. This would undoubtedly entail, among other things, American economic assistance and security arrangements acceptable to both Israel and Syria.

* The Palestinians: Although the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement was a milestone, it has proved to be extremely difficult to implement. The continued violence between Hamas and right-wing settlers has slowed progress and raised serious doubts about the accord. Moreover, increased defections by PLO leaders in the territories and a lack of a coherent policy are undermining Yasser Arafat's ability to build the public support he needs. Disagreements on control over border crossings to Jordan and Egypt and the size of the Jericho area are aspects of a much larger issue: The Palestinians seek to create the conditions and symbols of statehood; the Israelis demand, for security reasons, that they continue to control the checkpoints, insisting that self-rule is the objective. Missing the Dec. 13, 1993, deadline for Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and Gaza added to Palestinian frustration and misgivings.

This year Israel and the PLO must focus first and foremost on reducing the level of violence. Other than tougher new security measures, both sides must ensure that the average Palestinian begins to feel the benefits of peace, and they must spare no effort to implement the first phase of the agreement to show tangible progress.

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* Israel: A majority of Israelis are ready to make significant concession for peace. The Rabin government, however, must ``level'' with the Israeli public and spell out the truth openly and boldly: Many settlements must be removed, others must be relocated, some will remain, by mutual agreement, under Palestinian rule, and others will eventually be incorporated into Israel proper. The settlers have the right to know what is in store for them. It is a sense of uncertainty and fear for the future that gives rise to their outbursts against the government and the Palestinians.

The historic events of 1993, however, cannot be reversed. Negotiations can be slowed or postponed, but Arab-Israeli peace eventually will come to pass because the only other ``option'' is continued mutual destruction. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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