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In Mideast, All Eyes on the US

What kind of peace do American officials want to see between Israel and its neighbors? After Benjamin Netanyahu's victory at the Israeli polls, this question assumes center stage.

Does Washington seek a peace in which one side imposes its terms upon the others by brute force? Or does it seek the building of a long-term relationship of trust among neighbors?

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No peace of the former type can bring well-being (shalom, salam) to the Holy Land. Only a peace built on principles, reciprocity, and a measure of justice can do that. The Clinton administration needs to restate this now because the failure of its policies to date is evident. Today's Middle East is a tinderbox.

It is no secret that, prior to Israel's May 29 vote, US policymakers worked hard to bring about Shimon Peres's reelection. But they did so by pandering to the lowest common denominator in Israeli thinking - and ended up helping bring Mr. Netanyahu to power. How so? Well, over the past three years, Israelis have seen that whatever brutal things their government does ends up being supported by Washington. The strangling of the battered Palestinian economy by draconian blockade? No problem. The eviction of 400,000 Lebanese civilians through openly stated governmental terror? Tacit support from Washington.

The Clinton administration's rush to appease Israel, however brutally its government acts, contrasts with Washington's policy during the last Israeli elections. Then as now, the US was eager to 'nudge' the Israeli elections toward a pro-peace outcome. But in 1992, the Bush team sought this by drawing clear lines in the sand over key issues - including whether US-backed loans could be used to strengthen Israeli settlements in occupied lands.

The 1992 policy was successful. The average Israeli voter is no fool. She or he wants to live securely and in peace, and understands the value of keeping on good terms with Washington. Exit polls then indicated that many voters said they had been swayed by Washington's structuring of the incentives to cast their vote for Labor.

This time, there was no such structuring. Swing voters in the Israeli middle saw no particular reason to vote for a pro-peace party. If Mr. Peres could carpet-bomb south Lebanon for five days with Washington's support, then why should anything Netanyahu might do cause any more serious reaction?

True, many other factors, including some Arabs' use of terror, influenced Israeli voters. But here in the United States, we should examine our own government's role carefully. The region-wide uncertainties caused by Netanyahu's victory mean that a fair and steadying policy from Washington is more necessary than ever.

The US government is, after all, the preeminent sponsor of the peace process. All participants look here for leadership and reassurance. Washington should respond to Netanyahu's victory by dusting off those previous pillars of American policy which, over recent years, have been eroded away to near invisibility. It should start with a loud restatement of the cardinal principle of Security Council Resolution 242, which was shepherded by US Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg: "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." It should also restate the long-standing American conviction that Israel, which continues to hold supreme power in the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan as a "belligerent occupier," is not allowed to permanently settle its citizens in those lands.

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But beyond important technical details like these, policymakers in Washington need to return to the underlying issue. Just what kind of a relationship do they want to see between Israel and its neighbors?

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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