FOREIGN ministers from Israel, the Arab world, and around the globe meet in Moscow this week to buttress the shaky edifice of Middle East peace with plans for regional cooperation that they hope will shape a new future for the area.
The two-day multilateral conference on arms-control, economic, and environmental issues is the third part of the United States-designed peace process, complementing the October meeting in Madrid and faltering bilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors.
Russia and the US, cosponsors of the current peace process, see this week's parley mainly in symbolic terms, sitting Israel at the table for the first time with a wide range of Arab countries, while giving nations as disparate as China, Canada, and Japan a stake in Middle East peace. (China established diplomatic ties with Israel Jan. 23).
But the meeting is also designed to work at two other levels. Middle Eastern countries and third parties are being invited to suggest practical regional projects that could help build mutual confidence between Israelis and Arabs even while bilateral talks on peace and territory are under way. At the same time, diplomats hope, discussion of those projects will help paint a more general picture of what the Middle East might look like when and if the peace talks eventually bear fruit.
Such far-reaching goals were obscured in the preparations for the conference by procedural wrangles over form, with Israel continuing to insist that the United Nations representative have only observer status, and the Palestinians debating whether to attend because of the cosponsors' refusal to allow Palestine Liberation Organization members into the meeting. The PLO in Tunis was due to decide yesterday whether to take part.
Syria, a key player in the peace talks, will not be in Moscow, arguing that Israel has shown no signs of willingness to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights; and Syrian prot Lebanon is staying away in protest at the lack of progress in three rounds of bilateral negotiations with the Jewish state.
The presence of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab states alongside Israel, however, will lend the conference a dimension unprecedented in Middle Eastern affairs.
After a day of introductory speeches tomorrow, the conference is due to break up into working groups on Wednesday to set agendas for the main themes of future negotiations.
Central to the talks will be arms control, an especially sensitive topic in a region where preparations for war continue to dominate national budgets.
Israel, believed to be the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons, is expected to come under strong pressure to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, however, has stressed in recent months that he sees the buildup of conventional arms as the principal danger to be addressed.
The end of the cold war has done nothing to slow regional arms purchases. Israel has stepped up its acquisition of advanced fighter jets from the US, Syria is buying tanks from Czechoslovakia and is reportedly seeking new missiles from China and Russia, while Saudi Arabia earmarked $14.5 billion for defense spending this year, the largest single outlay in its 1992 budget.
Any agreement to slow the regional arms race would be strengthened by support from the countries that supply the Middle East with weapons, principally the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France. Their presence at the talks is seen as crucial.
Those nations are also expected to play a key role in plans to spur regional economic development, another item on the agenda. While hopes of forming a regional economic bloc have always foundered on inter-Arab rivalries, any effort to create jobs and markets that could pull the mass of the Arab people out of poverty will also call for major international investment.
With any lasting peace in the Middle East likely to rest heavily on economic stability, countries in the region will be looking to potential aid donors for financial incentives to settle differences.
Another set of critical negotiations will focus on water resources in a region beset by droughts and rising populations, where competition for scarce water is often cited as the most probable cause of another war.
Israeli officials, however, insist that they will not discuss key questions, such as ways to share local rivers like the Jordan, the Litani, and the Yarmuk, or Palestinian claims that Israel is pumping an undue amount of water from West Bank aquifers.
"We are going to avoid all issues that have their place in our bilateral talks" with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, Israeli Foreign Ministry director Gen. Yosef Hadass said last week.
Instead, he suggested, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might discuss plans for a regional desalination plant to treat the water of the Gulf of Aqaba, where all four countries have shorelines.
Environmental questions, the fourth item on the Moscow agenda, also offer scope for a multinational approach.
"We could at least exchange information," said General Hadass. "There is no need even for cooperation at the beginning, but it would give us an opportunity to build confidence."
While the Moscow conference is not expected to yield dramatic decisions, its US and Russian organizers hope it will open the way for talks that could have as important an impact on Middle East peace as any agreement on territory. But as a Russian diplomat says, "this is the beginning of a very, very long process."