Why Arabs aren't listening when US talks Mideast peace

The revived United States initiative in the Middle East does not seem to have scored any progress in breaking the deadlock between the Arabs and Israel. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy was given a polite hearing in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt before he went on to Israel Tuesday. But the US proposals for interim Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories are regarded by a broad spectrum of Arabs as outdated and discredited.

Arab leaders and civilians alike appear to share the view that the US can no longer lead the peace process alone. While recognizing that American involvement is crucial, they have publicly insisted that the Soviet Union must also be brought into the picture through an international conference on Mideast peace.

No indications have emerged from Mr. Murphy's talks in Damascus, Riyadh, and Cairo to indicate that the US can break the logjam from the Arab side.

To do that, he would have above all to persuade King Hussein of Jordan, which controlled the West Bank until 1967, to go along with the US proposals.

But since the US initiative was unveiled two weeks ago, both King Hussein and another key pro-Western Arab moderate, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, have continued to campaign for the international conference. European nations, too, have voiced support for an international conference over direct talks between Israel and Jordan on the fate of the Palestinians.

Quite apart from his commitment to the conference idea and to a role for the Soviets, Hussein has stuck adamantly to one cardinal principle ever since the Camp David process began more than a decade ago: He has pledged that he will never go it alone, as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did.

As an absolute minimum, Hussein has always sought Arab cover from Saudi Arabia, and Palestinian cover from the Palestine Liberation Organization for any move he might make. In recent years, aware of Syria's ability to sabotage efforts of which it disapproved, Hussein has added Damascus to that list.

But Mr. Murphy's tour produced no sign that Syria, the Saudis, the PLO, or Egypt - would give the King a green light to accept Washington's proposals.

Syrian officials were clearly gratified that the US envoy began his mission in Damascus, and spent more than two full days there. State-controlled Syrian radio repeatedly quoted reports from Washington citing US officials as saying the administration was convinced that no solution is possible without Syria.

But before, during and after Mr. Murphy's visit, the Syrian media assailed US policy. ``Nobody is fooled, the US is just maneuvering to gain time and distract attention from the political crisis afflicting the Camp David parties,'' the state radio declared. Official statements reiterated Syria's demand for an international conference and a comprehensive settlement ``far removed from separate and partial solutions.''

Saudi Arabia issued little by way of public statements during Mr. Murphy's visit. But the Saudi Foreign Minister held talks in Moscow at the end of January and came away saying the two countries saw eye to eye on peace moves. As for the PLO, its leaders clearly feel the organization's stock has been boosted by what they call the two-month-old ``uprising'' in the occupied territories. They are in no mood to accept now American terms and conditions that they resisted even when their fortunes seemed to be running low.

``We're too busy with events in the territories to bother about Murphy's tour,'' said one PLO official.

Perhaps the biggest problem the US initiative faces as far as the Arabs are concerned is one of credibility.

The US-sponsored Camp David accords are seen as being a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace.

A later US proposal, the 1982 Reagan peace plan, was immediately rejected by Israel under Prime Minister Begin. Under that plan, the US proposed eventual ``self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan.'' It also stated that Israeli withdrawal from the occupied lands would be a trade-off for peace.

Mr. Begin's successor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, appears equally dedicated to resisting territorial compromise in exchange for peace.

``The problem is in a prime minister who says `I want peace, but in place,''' said Hussein last week. ``That means ... all the occupied territories remain under Israeli control. Yet he claims he has no preconditions.''

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