Despite Obstacles, Middle East Peace Parley Appears on Track

Invitations to the Middle East peace conference, which is planned to open before the end of the month, still have not been issued. The date, the place, and even the exact identity of the participants are unknown. But even as the two key parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians, scramble to secure the best possible terms for attending, a sense of confidence is building that when the negotiations begin, everyone will be there.On both sides of the conflict, regional leaders appear to have concluded that they cannot afford to be left on the sidelines of an opportunity that has eluded them for nearly half a century. There is less optimism about the outcome of the talks. The architect of the conference, US Secretary of State James Baker III, is due back in the Middle East for his eighth visit next week to nail down the final details of his plan. But after seven months of painstaking work, he seems to have achieved the critical mass necessary to make the peace talks a reality. Opening the Israeli parliament on Oct. 7, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called the conference a "historic breakthrough" and "a very significant milestone in the history of the Middle East and of the Jewish people." Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, meanwhile, says Mr. Shamir has privately assured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel would attend. At the same time, Israel's most hostile neighbor, Syria, has already committed itself to the talks. Reassured by Washington that the conference will be based on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which provide for a "land for peace" deal, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has grasped what he sees as a unique opportunity to retrieve the Golan Heights, which he lost to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Shorn of the Soviet Union's military support, with which he had long sought strategic parity with the Jewish state, Mr. Assad now appears to pin greater hopes on a diplomatic solution. This change of heart has encouraged Egypt, whose own 1979 peace treaty with Israel led to Cairo's ostracism from fellow Arab countries for more than a decade. Delighted by the chance to finally help solve the Palestinian question that the Camp David accords left unanswered, Mr. Mubarak has been urging participation in the conference. "This is an opportunity for the Israelis as much as it is an opportunity for the Arabs and the Palestinians," he said Oct. 6 in a speech marking the 18th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, "because neither party will ever be able to eliminate the other."

A Palestinian last chance Jordan's King Hussein, meanwhile, who lost the West Bank in 1967 and whose population is heavily Palestinian, has also said the current peace bid offers perhaps the last chance the Palestinians will ever have to win self determination. Trapped by a grim economic crisis in Jordan and increasingly severe water shortages, the King also sees cooperation in the Middle East as the only path toward solving the region's long-term problems. At the heart of the crisis, the Palestinians themselves also seem to have concluded that they have no option but to join in this peace process, even though it offers to fulfill few of their historic aspirations. Abandoned by Moscow and the former Soviet bloc countries, spurned since the Gulf war by their financial backers in the Arab world, most Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders argue that the conference provides at least a chance to salvage something from their decades of struggle.

Representation is unclear "We are anxious, we are afraid, but we think there is an opportunity," said Nabil Shaath, a top aide to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, at a recent PLO congress in Algiers, where the organization voted cautious acceptance of the talks. Just how the Palestinians would be represented at the talks, given Israel's repeated refusal to sit down with the PLO, remains to be decided. The most likely option would give Palestinians a role in a joint delegation with Jordan, but there is disagreement over whether Arab East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1981, can be represented. Among all the Palestinian reservations, however, one issue most grates on the Arabs as the conference approaches. The Israeli drive to build settlements in the occupied territories, which has markedly accelerated over the past year, is seen by the Palestinians as a deliberate effort to preclude any withdrawal. "If they continue like this," Mr. Arafat complained in Algiers, "it means there will be no land for peace." Even as the planned conference draws near, Israel is showing no signs of letting up on this front. On Oct. 3, 52 mobile homes appeared on a hillside near Hebron and 20 more were installed in the Gaza Strip. Twenty-two Soviet immigrant families, meanwhile, are due to move into an abandoned kibbutz on the Golan Heights within the next two weeks, it was announced Oct. 6. This hard-line stand, when set against the hopes that the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors are bringing to the conference, raises serious doubts as to whether the talks could actually achieve anything.

Peaceful momentum The Americans, who with the Soviet Union are cosponsoring the planned meeting, hope that the mere fact of seating so many enemies around the same table will spark the momentum necessary to carry the peace process forward. But even if that hope is fulfilled, nobody expects any quick results from the working groups into which the conference is due to break up after an opening session. It took 16 months of intense negotiations before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem bore fruit in a peace treaty with Israel, observers here recall. And this time it is the whole tangled web of Middle East conflicts, not a simple bilateral deal, that is at stake.

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