Even if Mideast Talks Falter, a Start Has Been Made

OF all the triangular relationships in the world, the one between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states is one of the most complex. This is the crucial set of relationships at the heart of the multilateral Arab-Israeli talks that opened in Moscow Jan. 28.

The multilaterals are the third phase of the Arab-Israeli peace process started by Secretary of State James Baker last year. They are an essential supplement to the bilateral talks, between Israel and each of its neighbors, that have continued since last October.

The basic tradeoff built into the design of the current American diplomacy is that the Arab states are being asked to provide considerable assurance and benefits for Israel, in order that Israel feel secure enough to give something to the Palestinians. The first half of this exchange should take place mainly at the multilaterals, with the second occurring in the bilaterals. (Therefore, the Palestinians' no-show in Moscow need not be fatal.)

Some examples of the tradeoffs involved: The Arab states might cease their economic boycott of Israel, in return for Israel freezing its program of settling Jewish citizens inside the occupied territories.

Or at the security level, many experts have started exploring how, if the Arab states' armies could be reduced and reconfigured, that might allow Israel to agree to a phased withdrawal from the occupied areas. Or perhaps the Arab oil-producing states could at some stage engage Israel in profitable joint ventures, in return for which Israel might allow the Palestinians to revive their long-closed commercial port in Gaza.

This idea of Arab-state openness to Israel encouraging Israeli openness to the Palestinians is a powerful one, because it allows the parties to see beyond the deadlock of present negotiation to a future when mutual cooperation benefits all. And it looks generally realistic because it is built, in most part, on a sound evaluation of each party's core perceptions and interest.

For example, most Palestinians perceive their community as threatened by a powerful Israel that surrounds the two fragile Palestinian groups still living in their historic homeland. And most Israelis see themselves threatened by a powerful Arab world surrounding the world's one fragile Jewish state, located in the Jews' historic homeland.

Mr. Baker's approach of encouraging reciprocal Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian concessions may look realistic. But it has run into one tough obstacle: Many Israelis in power today do not view the Palestinians' claims and interest in the same way that the Palestinians view them. Many hard-liners in Israel still resist talking about "the Palestinians" at all. Instead, they refer to the indigenous populations of the West Bank and Gaza merely as "Arabs," a seamless continuation of the broader Arab sea t hat surrounds and threatens Israel.

But the Palestinians continue to claim that they are a distinct people, whose right to establish a Palestinian state within their homeland was established by the United Nations in 1947. And most Palestinians, having bad memories of their treatment by various Arab rulers, are reluctant to place their future wholly in these same hands.

Palestinian and Arab diplomats feel that they have already made a significant concession, by giving Israel the public recognition it demanded at the start of the current peace process, last October. They feel it is now Israel's turn to reciprocate - by softening its present firm refusal to even talk about Palestinian political rights or eventual territorial concessions.

Is Baker's whole structure of Arab-Israeli diplomacy about to topple? It might soon be. Neither the Syrians nor the Palestinians have any concrete achievements to point to, to justify the flexibility and responsiveness they feel they have displayed. Inside the occupied areas, the Israeli military still dominates Palestinians lives, while every month thousands more Jewish Israelis take government subsidies to settle there. Back in October, the Palestinian residents of the occupied areas feted their negoti ators with vast impromptu rallies. Now, their criticisms of the process have become increasingly loud.

It will be hard for Baker to meet everyone's hopes for the diplomacy he started. But there are some encouraging signs. Israel will be holding national elections, probably in June, while the issue of American guarantees for Israeli loans has become clearly linked to Israel's restraint on the settlements.

That's a helpful start. But if American leadership proves unable to meet the challenges of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, then the structure of the multilateral talks provides one helpful clue to a possible follow-on. For at the multilaterals all the world's great powers, old and new, have started to show their joint responsibility for the task of making Arab-Israeli peace. That will be an increasingly important base to build on, as the Palestinians, Israelis, and Arabs states continue to find a way to reconc ile their differences.

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