WITH peace talks to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute finally on track, the United States and the United Nations are turning to another seemingly intractable problem: Cyprus.
Fleeting hopes for a settlement that would end decades of tension between the island's Greek and Turkish communities were dashed last fall when elections in Turkey sidetracked promising negotiations. This week the UN will try again amid cautious hopes that, like Germany, Cyprus can be reunited.
"A solution is possible," says Gustave Feissel, the adviser on Cyprus to the UN secretary-general who will meet this week with the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders. "The parties realize that the status quo is not an option."
If a settlement is not reached the reference point for Cyprus may not be Germany but nearby Yugoslavia, where intercommunal tensions have led to permanent fragmentation. The island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops, responding to a Greek-backed coup attempt, invaded northern Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots later proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, now fortified by a contingent of 30,000 Turkish soldiers.
Twenty-one hundred UN peacekeepers are deployed along the "green line" that separates the northern republic, recognized only by Turkey, from the Greek-Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus in the south. Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, is the world's last physically divided city.
The goal of the UN mission is a draft outline of a unified, federated Cypriot state - all or substantially agreed on in advance - that would serve as the basis for a high-level meeting later this year. Ratification would be followed by a transition phase in which a new Cyprus constitution would be drafted. The constitution would be ratified in separate referendums in the two communities.
The UN Security Council will determine this spring whether enough progress has been made in pre-negotiations to warrant a high-level meeting. The most likely forum would be a four-party conference including Greece, Turkey, the Cyprus republic, and northern Cyprus.
President Bush will press the issue with Turkey's prime minister, Suleyman Demirel, when they meet in Washington Feb. 11.
Since intercommunal fighting first began in Cyprus in the early 1960s, public opinion has been a major constraint on the ability of the Greek and Turkish governments, patrons of the two Cyprus communities, to encourage thecompromises needed for peace.
"As a political issue Cyprus is not something that will win an election, but it's something that can lose an election. So you have to skate with great skill," says an informed US official.
But UN and US officials point to circumstances that have made all the parties to the conflict more eager for a settlement:
r Turkey. After providing valuable support to the US-led alliance in the Gulf war, Turkey is convinced that its case for admission to the European Community - whose markets are coveted for industrial and agricultural exports - has been strengthened. Resolving the Cyprus issue is an essential precondition.
"The main thing that has changed is the Turkish position," says the US official. "Turkey, wanting to be part of the West and seeing it has a shot at it, is the new factor."
Supporters of Greece in Congress would be certain to foil another Turkish objective - an expanded arms-and-aid relationship with Washington - in the absence of a Cyprus settlement.
r Greece. Like Turkey, Greece is eager to dispose of the Cyprus problem so that the two countries can begin negotiations over disputed oil fields in the Aegean Sea. While popular in Congress, Greece will nevertheless be forced to keep pace if Turkey abandons its rigid positions on land and refugee issues that torpedoed hopes for a peace conference last fall.
r Turkish Cypriots. Under embargo since the Turkish invasion of 1974, Turkish Cypriots have paid a high price for the division of Cyprus. Economic conditions are so serious that unification - and compromises needed to achieve it - now enjoys more support, especially among younger Turkish residents.
r Greek Cypriots. Tourism, agricultural exports, and banks and businesses transplanted from Beirut have given the Republic of Cyprus the highest per capita income in the Mediterranean. But growth is retarded by the burden of defense spending.
"If they can get rid of this problem everything gets better for everybody," says the US official.
Any settlement in Cyprus will require the resolution of disputes over territory and refugees pressed by Greek-Cypriots and demands for political equality and security pressed by Turkish-Cypriots. It will also require a new constitution to allocate power between the two communities.
Turkish troops control 37 percent of the island. The Cyprus government wants the Turkish zone to be reduced to an area more proportional to its 20 percent population share. The government also insists on the right of return for 150,000 Greek Cypriots displaced from the north during the Turkish invasion.
Diplomatic sources point to one logical compromise: Turkish Cypriots would make territorial concessions but limit the right of return to preserve the ethnic homogeneity of the Turkish sector. Under the proposal both displaced Greeks and Turks, the latter numbering some 60,000, would receive financial compensation for lost lands.
Turkey's legal standing poses a harder problem. Greek Cypriots refuse to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus or the sovereignty of Turkish Cypriots over any portion of the island. Unless their equality in the sovereignty of Cyprus is recognized, Turkish Cypriots say, they cannot negotiate as equals or enjoy the protection of equals in an eventual bi-communal state from which all or most Turkish troops would be withdrawn.
"The agreement we are negotiating envisages a federation created through the free will of two politically equal communities," says Mr. Feissel.
In a December report, the UN called for a federation in which "sovereignty will be equally shared but indivisible." Any federal state would provide for joint command over partially integrated Greek and Turkish Cypriot military forces, diplomats predict.
Turkish Cypriots want a final settlement to be guaranteed by Turkey, Greece, and Britain. The Cyprus government wants the EC to have a role. But Turkey's Cypriot leaders worry that EC membership could open the door to migration into the Turkish zone.
Diplomats close to the Cyprus negotiations say these and other disputes can be settled this year if the parties are willing to seize the most promising opportunity in two decades to do it.