THE multilateral discussions between Arabs and Israelis that began Jan. 28 in Moscow offer an important opportunity to articulate a vision for a broad Mideast peace. Despite a Syrian boycott, these talks mark another step in the recognition of Israel's legitimacy in the region. They also open the door to dealing with other important issues like water, refugees, and arms control. Ideally, these talks will begin the process of tough but responsible dialogue on these key issues while permitting confidence b uilding among parties that have not previously sat across from each other at the table.
While the multilateral talks are important in and of themselves, their most significant function is to help improve the atmosphere for the vital bilateral negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. It is unlikely that the multilateral discussions will become the main vehicle for achieving Arab-Israeli peace. On the other hand, these discussions - if not properly managed - could result in confidence destroying rather than confidence building. It would be a mistake for the international community to pr essure either Arabs or Israelis on issues that could undermine the bilateral talks.
When President Bush and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev extended invitations to the multilateral talks last October, they intended to convene those discussions within two weeks of the Madrid conference. Since the Madrid meeting, however, the Soviet Union as a nation has ceased to exist and the United States has taken the spotlight as the host - at least temporarily - of the bilateral negotiations. Russia has attempted to assume the mantle of Soviet leadership, but no one expects Moscow to asser t any significant influence over the Mideast negotiations.
In the meantime, Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis have demonstrated the capability to conduct bilateral discussions - even if they lack the desired warmth and substance. Saudis and other Gulf-states Arabs exhibited their willingness to support the peace process by assuming the role of friendly observers at Madrid.
Delayed over two months by these developments, the question might arise as to why it was important to press ahead with a new set of negotiations at this time. However, the concept behind the multilateral talks remains sound because the process they start can provide an important impetus to the bilateral Arab-Israeli discussions.
The multilateral negotiations add several important elements to the peace process mix:
* New actors. The multilateral talks bring to the fore a number of players who can make important contributions. Japan and the European Community can help finance the peace. The inclusion of China - which has just established diplomatic relations with Israel - offers the best hope for an arms-control dialogue among suppliers and consumers. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab Maghreb Union can address regional Arab concerns while providing ongoing legitimation to the bilateral peace p rocess.
* New issues. The multilateral talks provide a forum for exploring broader issues critical to peace but possibly not ripe for resolution in bilateral negotiations - including arms control and regional security, water, refugees, environment, and economic development.
* New incentives. The multilateral forum over time can outline a vision of regional peace in a manner that would provide an impetus to the peace process. The prospect for an end to the Arab boycott of Israel may prove tempting to Jerusalem. The chance for major international investment in the Middle East may prove exciting for the region's many have-nots. The possibility of extensive development assistance may imbue Palestinian self-government with some hope.
To advance the prospects for Mideast peace, the multilateral process must focus on a positive vision while avoiding harangues and entanglement in issues that can undermine the confidence of regional players.
Discussion of the region's water must avoid assessing blame and instead must focus on how to increase and manage water resources for all. Discussion of refugee resettlement must concentrate on job creation rather than political rights. Discussion of arms control should center on the concepts of legitimate national security, reduced arms competition, and the means for practical realization of a region free of weapons of mass destruction, rather than on pointing accusing fingers at current capabilities hel d by the parties.
Like the Madrid conference and the bilateral talks that have preceded the Moscow session, the multilateral negotiations face a tough challenge. This will be exacerbated by the desire of some participants to engage in rhetoric rather than dialogue, by Syria's absence, by arguments over Palestinian representation, and by the failure of bilateral negotiations to make tangible progress to date. However, the dialogue that began in Moscow this week can facilitate a process of confidence building that will ulti mately encourage each of the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict to think more seriously about making concessions for real peace.