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After the Summit, What?
It's Time for Washington to Help get Arafat Cracking and Syria Aboard

By Christopher Ogden

(TIME, March 25) -- For political symbolism, last week's Sinai summit of solidarity against terrorism was about as good as it gets. That it took place at all on a week's notice was remarkable. Before the 1993 Oslo accord that opened relations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, such a meeting would have been inconceivable. The marquee collection of Kings, Princes, Presidents and Prime Ministers gathered at Sharm el-Sheikh was a worthy global endorsement of a peace process blasted off track by suicide bombers from Hamas, the radical Palestinian group. The leaders said all the right things about combatting terrorism and making moves toward peace irreversible. They were predictably short on specifics, but to have expected more would have been unrealistic. O.K., so now what?

So now forget the summit. However admirable it may be symbolically, its substantive impact will be marginal in a Middle East where the real story is the unraveling of Israeli politics by Hamas. A radical minority, Hamas did not take part in the January elections in which Yasser Arafat won the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. By opting out, though, Hamas became politically inconsequential. When, also in January, Israeli agents assassinated Yehia Ayyash, the group's master bombmaker, the group was weakened militarily. Israel's decision to move forward the national elections, originally scheduled for November, to May 29 added a strain of desperation to Hamas' strategy. "[Its] goal," says Peter Rodman, director of national security programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington, "is to topple [Shimon] Peres and stop the peace process, thereby humiliating the P.L.O. and reradicalizing Palestinians."

Prime Minister Peres is vulnerable. His almost 30-point lead over hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has vanished since the first bombing, on Feb. 25. Never a soldier, Peres has been criticized throughout his long political career for being too eager to compromise on security issues. He did little to counter that impression in November when he succeeded the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister and kept the Defense Ministry portfolio for himself, instead of giving it to respected former General Ehud Barak, who was named Foreign Minister. He erred again by failing initially to include military experts in the Israeli delegation negotiating with Syria in the U.S. in December and January. Back-channel communications by Peres subordinates undercut the Prime Minister's stronger public words about relinquishing the Golan Heights. Then came the suicide attacks.

After the four bombings, any Israeli leader would have had to crack down on the Palestinians. Peres did, but he must now stay tough, speak clearly to Israelis while convincing Palestinians that they have a stake in the process and thus must put their own pressure on extremists.

Palestinians will not decide anything unless and until Arafat determines whether the Palestinian Authority represents moderates or radicals. Significantly, Israel in its nation-building days faced a similar dilemma. In 1948 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the Israeli army to prevent the landing in Israel of the Altalena, an aging freighter from Europe carrying 6,000 rifles and machine guns, millions of rounds of ammunition and 750 supporters of the Jewish radical group Irgun. Scores were killed in a shoot-out that led to a short, sharp civil war: Ben-Gurion's Labor government versus zealots opposed to a Jewish state that did not encompass all of Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Irgun's leader, of course, was Menachem Begin, who 29 years later became Israeli Prime Minister. Arafat might well heed the precedent.

The U.S., the other principal player, has so far reacted to the recent turmoil with skill. Bill Clinton rightly expedited the shipment of sophisticated bomb-detection equipment to Israel. By standing alongside Peres in the desert and in an emotional visit to Jerusalem, the U.S. President stepped right into the Israeli political race, and helped his case at home, but no matter. It was the right moment to back a friend. No country, after all, is immune. The killing of 62 Israelis is the per capita equivalent of the U.S.'s losing more than 3,000 Americans or suffering 18 Oklahoma City bombings in a three-week period.

But the U.S. must press harder: on Syria to stop stalling, on Arafat to get off the fence. Syria's absence from the summit was inexcusable. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has met 17 times with President Hafez Assad. No more. Assad runs an 18th century nation. Until he takes a stronger stand against terrorism, cracks down on Hizballah extremists in southern Lebanon and stops backing Hamas, he can stew in his backwater. "It's time to put Assad on ice," says Geoffrey Kemp, former Middle East specialist on the U.S. National Security Council staff. The real key is Arafat. Having won his presidency with 88% of the vote, he has a popular mandate. But standing last week with Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, both of whose predecessors were assassinated for making peace, may not have made his decision easier.

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