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Behind the Headlines U.S. Expected to Keep the Mideast on the Backburner This Year

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Abba Eban, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, has been urging that the United States needs to play a more active mediation role in the Middle East peace process.

“There is no alternative to the United States as an agent of reconciliation in the region,” the former Israeli Labor Foreign Minister wrote in the current issue of the quarterly, Foreign Policy.

“The Soviet Union has disqualified itself by its blatant anti-Israel bias, reflected in its continued refusal since 1968 to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Western Europe is too vulnerable to Arab economic pressures to play a balanced role in its own right. The voting system of the United Nations is under the command of the Arab-Moslem-Communist group, so no decisions that are respectful of Israeli interests can be expected from international agencies, although as the start of Israeli-Lebanese military talks on an Israeli pullout shows, the Secretary General may be able to play a helpful role.”

NO ADMINISTRATION POLICY CHANGE EXPECTED

Middle East policymakers in the Reagan Administration would probably not argue with Eban’s assessment. But as for his conclusion, President Reagan been urged to take an activist role in the Mideast throughout the four years of his first term, to no avail. As Reagan prepares to begin his second term January 20, no change is expected.

First of all, the Administration has made it clear that it will be occupied most of this year with the budget deficit and tax reform and with efforts to seek some type of agreement on nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union. As was demonstrated during its first term, the Reagan Administration prefers to concentrate on one or two major issues at a time.

This is coupled with a belief in the Administration that little or no progress can be made, although the Administration still publicly affirms that the President is behind his Sept. 1, 1982 initiative as the basis for peace negotiations in the Mideast. Reagan has shown no desire to involve himself in the peace process as did his predecessor Jimmy Carter although many believe this is the only way progress can be achieved. As his aides have pointed out since his re-election, 73-year-old men do not change their ways.

Secretary of State George Shultz, who as a former economics professor and dean does have the background and temperment for mediation, did try his hand as a Mideast mediator, successfully helping Israel and Lebanon reach an agreement for Israeli withdrawal on May 17, 1983.

Shultz involved himself personally in the negotiations because State Department officials were either misled or over-optimistic that once Israel agreed to withdraw there would be no problem obtaining a Syrian withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.

But, instead, Syria not only refused to negotiate a withdrawal but forced Lebanese President Amin Gemayel last March to abrogate the agreement with Israel. When later in the month King Hussein of Jordan rejected Mideast negotiations under U.S. auspices, Shultz appeared to wash his hands of any mediating role. “It is up to the parties in the region to find their way to security, peace and for that matter, better quality of life goals that everyone seeks,” Shultz told a State Department press conference last March 20.

“You have to get out of this notion that everytime things don’t go just to everybody’s satisfaction in the Middle East, it’s the fault of the U.S., or it’s up to the U.S. to do something about it. We are active, we will help and in the end any solution that works will work primarily because the parties to it are out there, are involved in it and are determined to make it work.”

THE OUTLOOK FOR U.S. POLICY

This philosophy is behind the position the U.S. is taking in the current Israeli-Lebanese talks and apparently, for the present, will govern the Administration’s attitude toward the overall Mideast peace process. This is why Richard Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, is playing a behind-the-scenes role in the Israeli-Lebanese talks rather than being the mediator as was Philip Habib.

All this does not mean the Administration is ignoring the Mideast. The U.S. is trying to be “helpful” in the effort for an Israeli withdrawal which it has stressed must be coupled with guarantees for the security of Israel’s northem borders.

The Reagan Administration is expected to continue the growing strategic cooperation with Israel and both military and economic aid to Israel will increase, although not without a dispute between the two countries on how much Israel needs.

The Administration will also continue to closely monitor the war between Iraq and Iran which has the potential for not only disrupting the oil flow to the West and Japan but could at any time erupt into a wider conflict.

The Reagan Administration will use the conflict as an excuse, as it has done previously, to seek to supply sophisticated arms to what it calls moderate Arab states, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This will result in ill feelings in Israel and a battle with Congress.

But, on the whole, the Administration hopes to keep the Mideast on the backburner for 1985 unless the unexpected occurs. Unfortunately, the Mideast is a place where the unexpected is the norm.

This is why many here fault this policy. They believe that unless the U.S. continually pursues an active policy aimed at bringing about an Arab-Israel peace, events may occur that will endanger the progress that has already been made.

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