Arab-Israeli Talks Pose Tenuous Hope for Accord


NEXT week's Middle East peace conference in Madrid is the culmination of months of intensive effort by the Bush administration to get the parties to one of the world's most tenacious disputes - the Arab-Israeli conflict - to the bargaining table. The Madrid conference will launch comprehensive talks that could open the door to peace in the region. But bitter disagreements over matters of substance and procedure could cause the talks to collapse, raising the possibility of yet another Middle East war. As the Madrid meeting convenes, the following questions and answers may help readers untangle the complexities of Middle East peacemaking: Why are Middle East leaders finally willing to talk?

All have agreed to join the peace process for largely negative reasons. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union has left Syria without its main patron and arms supplier. With the military option gone, Damascus has little choice but to try diplomacy to regain the Golan Heights from Israel. Jordan and the Palestinians, who backed Iraq during the Gulf war, have joined out of diplomatic weakness. And a divided Israel can find no graceful way of sidestepping peace talks it has always said it wanted with its Arab neighbors. The decisive force behind the conference has been United States Secretary of State James Baker III, who has labored for months to convince and cajole Israelis and Arabs to seize the moment of victory in the Gulf War to fashion a new order in the Middle East.

How will the talks be organized?

The three-day Madrid conference will be strictly ceremonial, featuring speeches by Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev and opening statements by representatives of Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the head of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Serious bargaining will begin on day four when Israel meets in simultaneous one-on-one talks with its Arab neighbors. The third phase of the peace process, which will be open to the remaining Arab states, will deal with regional issues. But Syria has announced it will boycott the multilateral talks, and has urged other Arab states to do the same, unless Israel first agrees to relinquish the Golan Heights.

What are the goals of the peace process?

For Israel, the ultimate objective is peace treaties with, and diplomatic recognition by, the Arab states, nearly all of which have been actually or technically at war with the Jewish state since it was founded in 1948. For the Arab states, the main objective will be territory captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, plus some form of self-determination for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

What are the major obstacles to success?

The main obstacle is the issue of land for peace. The Arab states say there will be no peace until Israel complies with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 by relinquishing control of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. Israel says it has fulfilled its obligations under the two UN resolutions by giving up the Sinai Peninsula in a treaty with Egypt in 1979. Control over the other territories, Israel's current government believes, would jeopardize the nation's military security. Procedural disputes could also sink the peace process. The choice of venues for the bilateral talks, for example, is symbolically important to both sides. More basic is the problem of timing. Arab states say their technical state of war with Israel cannot end until territory is ceded. Israel says territory cannot even be discussed until the Jewish state is accepted and recognized in the Arab world.

Can such deep differences be reconciled?

It is too early to say. The US is hoping that the mere process of talking will reduce the hostility that has nourished the Arab-Israeli conflict. Confidence-building measures - for example, ending the 40-year Arab economic boycott of Israel - could also help clear the atmosphere. With its security fears eased, Israel might be persuaded to consider territorial compromise, US officials hope. One possible compromise: giving up portions of the West Bank and Gaza, where Arab populations are concentrated, whil e retaining control of strategic areas. Even this halfway measure would meet with adamant opposition from radical Israeli nationalists. To keep the peace process from unraveling, the US will have to sustain the pressure on both sides. Secretary Baker is expected to name a high-level representative soon to monitor the talks.

Are the Arab states really ready to accept Israel?

Few Arabs are happy to have a Jewish state in their midst. But, 43 years after its founding, most have grudgingly reconciled themselves to the fact that Israel is here to stay. The conclusion has been reinforced by Israel's predominant military position and the staunch US backing Israel enjoys. So far only Egypt (in 1979) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (in 1988) have explicitly recognized Israel's right to exist. A kind of implicit recognition will result if and when other Arab states finally meet with Israel in the bilateral or multilateral talks called for under the US peace plan. The major obstacle to normal relations is the status of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan. Even if they are returned, it will take a generational change before the Jewish state is welcomed as an integral and secure part of the Arab Middle East.

What if there is no peace?

If the peace talks collapse, the main casualty will be the hope of ever ending Arab-Israeli strife. There would be little immediate prospect of war but the status quo holds long-term danger. If peace efforts faltered, radicals in both camps would be strengthened. Israel would cling to occupied lands more tightly than ever, extending Jewish settlements to anchor legal or religious claims. Irredentism among Palestinians, Syrians, and Palestinians would grow. Across the Arab world the unresolved Palestinian issue would nourish political, and especially Muslim, extremism. Beyond the Israeli-Arab dispute are longer-term issues that are ticking time-bombs. One is the proliferation of lethal weapons throughout the region. Another is critical water shortages that many Middle East experts believe could trigger the next Middle East war. Unless there is progress in the bilateral talks, these regional issues may not be discussed, much less resolved.

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