US backing for Israel 'puts peace effort at risk'

The announcement yesterday that the Israeli Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak, will meet his US counterpart, Warren Christopher, in Washington tomorrow to discuss plans for an Israeli-America "defence alliance" will only reinforce Arab perceptions of American bias in the Middle East.

At the weekend the Egyptian Foreign Minister and other Arab leaders criticised the failure of both Democrats and Republicans to venture a shred of criticism of Israel's recent bombardment of Lebanon. The time had come, the Arab leaders said, for the European Union to play a more forthright part in restoring some international balance to the Middle East equation.

But, as yesterday's announcement indicates, the response in Washington to the Arab complaints is unlikely to be one of abject apology, much less a policy U-turn. Indeed, President Bill Clinton made it clear last week that his plan is to strengthen America's relations with its traditional Middle Eastern ally. The goal of the envisioned defence alliance with Israel would be "to meet common threats in the years to come", Mr Clinton said. "US-Israeli strategic co-operation," he promised, "will grow in importance."

Surprisingly, however, the novel idea is beginning to seep through Washington that Arab criticism of American bias towards Israel might not be entirely unjustified and could undermine efforts to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

An article in Sunday's New York Times pondered the notion that the US government might have misplayed its hand by leaning too heavily behind Israel during the conflagration that claimed 150 Lebanese lives last month.

"There is increasing concern among Middle East specialists that America is losing something crucial - its critical distance from Israel - and thereby damaging its ability to play the 'honest broker' for Israelis and Arabs," the newspaper said.

If the United States is the most influential international player in the Middle East, the New York Times is the newspaper with the most influence on US Middle East policy.

Thus the very consideration of the idea by the New York Times that the US might be losing its "critical distance" from Israel presents the possibility of a debate on the previously unutterable.

Or maybe not. In the view of one Middle Eastern specialist the notion that there had been any American "critical distance" from Israel in the first place was merely a bad joke. "It's like a woman who has been sleeping around a lot," he said, "and suddenly wakes up one morning worrying that people might be saying she is not a virgin any more."

The Clinton administration insists, however, that its motives are pure, driven by the belief that to achieve the paramount objective of peace it is imperative that Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, defeats his hard line Likud rivals in Israel's 29 May elections.

What many Middle East specialists suggested was that more even-handedness was required to prevent the Arab world from becoming calamitously antagonistic towards the US-brokered peace process.

Jim Zogby, the director of Washington's Arab American Institute, believes the US response to the Israeli offensive in Lebanon will have damaging and far-reaching consequences for the Middle East peace effort.

"It is a reminder that even when you have a disproportionate and illegal attack on Lebanon's people, the US cannot find its way to urge restraint on Israel," Mr Zogby said.

"And that reminder will have a permanent distorting effect on future US relations in the Middle East." But could the US cash in its chips with Israel at a later date and apply pressure when obstacles are encountered in the peace process? Mr Zogby had his doubts.

"We won't know until after the Israeli elections. We see what we get." And that is a US political establishment utterly beholden to the domestic pro-Israel lobby.

As Mr Zogby is not alone in observing, bipartisan US policy towards Israel is not so much a function of America's national interest as of the fear all elected officials in Washington have of incurring the wrath of the organised and influential pro-Israel forces inside the US.