IN hectic diplomatic maneuvering before the United Nations coalition began military operations in Iraq, the principal ``concession'' offered to Saddam Hussein in various guises was an ``all parties'' conference to settle the problems of the Middle East. Aside from doubts about the wisdom of ``linking'' the conference to an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the idea cannot have been seriously analyzed. Since a grand conference to grapple with the chronic tensions of the Middle East is probably still in the diplomatic mind, it is time such an analysis were begun. The first issue to be addressed in an ``all parties'' proposal is, who are ``all parties''? No doubt Israel is one, and there is a general assumption that somebody representing the Palestinians would be another.
The leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization is accepted by the Arab states and the UN as representative of the ``Palestinian people,'' but what of the Palestinian people who do not believe themselves represented by that coalition of militias and expatriates?
Is there to be an election in the West Bank and Gaza? Who would ensure law and order during the election? Is there any evidence that the PLO would not seek to disrupt an election whose result it could not control?
If not an election, what would be the selection procedure for inviting delegates to represent the Palestinians? Should Israel be permitted to choose them or to set the rules by which they were chosen? That seems absurd, although it is the current Israeli position.
But should the PLO be helped to establish its civil authority (as distinguished from its well-established military position) by political manipulation not involving the actual Palestinian residents of the disputed territories?
What should be Iraq's role? It has no claim to authority in these territories except as imperial heir to the Ottoman or British Empires, a claim in which nobody else would concur. Its involvement in the Palestinian struggle has been as a ``belligerent'' claiming to be at ``war'' with Israel and a supporter of militias whom the Israelis call ``terrorists.''
FOR many years, Iraq has been in violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which oblige states (including Iraq, Israel, and just about every other state in the world) to search for and try, or extradite to another party concerned, individuals accused of ordering or committing a ``grave breach.''
``Grave breaches'' include hostage-taking and, generally, extensive destruction of property not justified by military necessity. Iraq has not sought out, much less tried or extradited, Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, and others against whom there seems to be ample evidence of having ordered such grave breaches.
Being in current violation of its treaty obligations, is there any point in securing Iraqi ratification of yet another document it might also disregard?
Syria is another state in the region which seems to be in current violation of its pledged word. But Syria has a direct interest in regaining control of the Golan Heights, and Israel's interest in keeping the Heights militarily neutral, coupled with the feasibility of joint Israeli-Syrian military patrols of the sensitive areas along their border, make an agreement possible that would not depend on the reliability of either's pledged word. To set up such a patrol arrangement requires only a lower level military agreement whose breach would be immediately apparent.
Lebanon is another state bordering Israel, but who represents Lebanon? Syria, now in military occupation of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley? The embattled remnant of the de jure government of Lebanon that has no significant authority in the country? Is it imagined that an ``all party'' conference aimed at settling tensions in the Middle East can bring stability to Lebanon without the participation and ultimate consent of the Druze, Maronite Christian, Amal, Shiite, and other armed and independently operating militias? Or is it imagined that the Palestinian-Israeli situation is the only cause of conflict in the Middle East?
Jordan's precarious stability is more likely to be threatened by participation in anything that might lead to formal peace with Israel than by the continuance of the current voyage of King Hussein between Scylla and Charybdis.
Egypt's participation in the conference will surely be wanted by all sides, but it is not clear precisely why. Egypt has no desire to pick up responsibility for the Gaza Strip or any other territory now administered by Israel, and can afford nothing in return for whatever territory might be offered to it.
Then there are the other countries with nothing to offer, and some with an interest in continued turmoil in the area. Should Libya be invited? Saudi Arabia? The Emirates? Iran? Tunisia? What about Yemen, Morocco, and Algeria, whose Jews fled to Israel without compensation from political situations not very different from the current situation of the Palestinians: ancestral roots in the territory and no role in its governance.
It is already clear that there is no easy way out - no ``all parties'' grand conference that can bring stability and peace to the suffering people of the Middle East. The obvious alternative is to break the hardtack into bite-sized bits and chew on each bit separately, appreciating that its flavor is affected by the other spices in the mixture, but swallowing only those bits that are capable of being swallowed, one measured mouthful at a time.
It is even possible to suggest that an ``all parties'' conference is the very last step in a long process, and a step that might prove unnecessary if the people involved were reconciled to taking the first steps.