FOR the moment, East European reform has eclipsed all other areas of US-Soviet relations. But Europe is not the only region where shifts in Soviet foreign policy have produced a new political dynamic. In the Middle East, Moscow is working energetically to thrust itself back into the Arab-Israeli peace process. This effort is about to pay off as the improving climate of Soviet-Israeli relations is leading to a resumption of full diplomatic ties. The growing emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel, estimated at 100,000 over the next two to three years, the agreement in principle between El Al and Aeroflot to resume direct commercial flights between the countries, and the negotiations for a possible visit to Moscow next month by Vice Premier Shimon Peres all point to an increasingly positive diplomatic climate.
Enhancing this process is a greater flexibility on the Soviet side regarding their preconditions for renewed relations. Earlier, the USSR demanded complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories; now Moscow seeks Israeli acceptance of an international conference and a place for the Palestine Liberation Organization at the negotiating table.
Moscow also abstained on the annual UN vote last month seeking Israel's expulsion from the General Assembly. This is the first time the Soviets failed to support this litmus test of solidarity against Israel since the motion was originally introduced in 1982. These events indicate is a concerted effort by the Soviet Union to cast aside the past 22 years of hostility and once again engage in a mutually beneficial diplomatic relationship with Israel.
How should the United States view this development? First, renewed Soviet-Israeli ties are not a setback for US-Israeli relations or for American influence in the region. Moscow is under no illusions as to the centrality of Washington's role in the peace process. It recognizes that the US is the only outside party that can hope to modify Israel's position on the occupied territories. As Georgy Rimsky of the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations said, ``The paramount role in influencing Israeli thinking must be that of the US and not the USSR.''
Second, this development will not automatically lead to a prominent Soviet role in the peace process. Indeed, renewed ties acknowledge the current political reality that neither superpower can unilaterally ``deliver'' both Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table.
The challenge for US diplomacy, therefore, is to avoid the temptation of describing the Soviet-Israeli rapprochement in purely zero-sum terms. Washington should use this opportunity to explore the change in Soviet Middle East diplomacy and to determine if current circumstances allow for superpower cooperation aimed at promoting future negotiations.
The US should seek to clarify the Soviets' view on basic questions related to their role in the peace process. Is Moscow willing to adjust its view on the modalities of an international conference? Would the Soviets be able to persuade the Syrians to adopt a more conciliatory posture vis-`a-vis the peace process? Most important, is Moscow willing to expend in the region the political capital necessary that could prompt movement toward negotiations?
If the Soviets are indeed serious about casting aside their previous ideological and obstructionist policies and are willing to play a constructive role in the peace process, the US should work with them. Helping create the proper atmosphere between Arabs and Israelis will enhance the start of serious negotiations.
The US and USSR could not and should not attempt to impose their own framework. It is instructive to recall the abortive superpower talks of 1969-70 and the stillborn 1977 Geneva declaration. No breakthrough can be achieved toward a settlement until both Arabs and Israelis are willing to make difficult concessions.
The superpowers can send a clear signal of their desire to prevent an outbreak of fighting in the Middle East by taking common steps aimed at reducing their contribution to regional instability. The runaway arms race, principally financed by Washington and Moscow, does little to strengthen regional stability and in fact increases the chances that a single incident, `a la Sarajevo, 1914, could unleash war.
One prudent and constructive step would be for the US and USSR to agree to a Middle East arms-transfer moratorium that would coincide with vigorous diplomatic overtures. It would demonstrate to Arabs and Israelis alike that the path to greater security lies not with the military option, but with a stronger effort on diplomatic solutions.