Mideast Talks: A Year Old and At a Threshold

Israeli, Arab negotiators have reached substance - and face a breakthrough or a breakdown

ONE year after being launched amid the pomp and circumstance of Madrid's royal palace, the Middle East peace process has reached a critical threshold.

Middle East experts, surprised that the process has lasted this long, attribute its longevity to a genuine commitment to peace by the leaders of the main parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But to survive, the peace process may have to weather a transition between US administrations, even as leaders of the main parties hold restive and rejectionist public opinion at bay.

"After one year of prenegotiations, the parties are now moving into the critical phase of dealmaking," says Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We're nearing the point of breakthrough or breakdown."

The first-ever comprehensive Middle East peace talks began last Oct. 30 after members of the United States-led coalition that defeated Iraq in the Gulf war vowed to press for a solution to the festering Arab-Israeli conflict.

With the Bush administration playing the key broker's role, Israel and its Arab neighbors, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, have held parallel sets of bilateral negotiations. Separate sets of multilateral talks have gathered nearly all the nations in the region to discuss issues ranging from water resources to arms control.

With Round 7 of the bilateral talks under way in Washington, US officials have been prodding Israel and Syria to agree on a joint declaration of principles that would pave the way to a peace treaty and an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The US is also pressing Israel and Palestinians to agree on an early date for elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On a third track, the US is renewing efforts to urge Arab states to end their secondary boycott of Israel by agreeing to do business with companies that do business with Israel. The step is a confidence-building measure that diplomats say would make it easier for Israel to be conciliatory at the bargaining table.

The most promising opportunity for Middle East peace since Israel's founding was created by a convergence of circumstances that convinced three key actors in the region - Syria, Israel, and leading Palestinians - to abandon long-cherished ambitions.

In 1988, Palestinians capitalized on a moment of strength provided by their uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories to make a belated concession to reality. That year Palestinian leaders formally relinquished claims to Israel, proclaiming the approximate boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza as the outer limits of a hoped-for state.

Last year, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria's main patron, persuaded Damascus that peace, not a war to destroy Israel, offers the best hope of regaining the Golan Heights.

Israeli elections last June ended the dominance of the right-wing Likud Party, which was committed to solidifying Israel's control of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. The sudden disposition to compromise has been reinforced by a recognition among all three parties that the moment for peacemaking is perishable. But analysts point to domestic circumstances that still retard progress at the bargaining table:

* Syria. After four decades of hot and cold war, Syria and Israel are talking about swapping land for peace. The key to a breakthrough would be a plan for concessions with some degree of simultaneity.

But Mr. Assad, a member of Syria's tiny Alawite Muslim sect, is under pressure from the Sunni majority not to accept half a loaf by leaving even part of the Golan under Israeli control as part of any deal, even through a transition period. "The Alawites flirted with France [Syria's colonial rulers] and are suspected by the Sunni majority," says an informed Syrian source who asked not to be named. "To surrender an inch of Sunni land would confirm their worst fears. It's a major constraint on Assad."

* Israel. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would like to make peace while his electoral mandate is fresh. He has made concessions to Arab opinion, including a significant cutback in construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But there are indications already that Mr. Rabin's grip on Israel's new government is not firm. Moves to broaden his ruling coalition with right-of-center parties could make it easier to gain parliamentary approval if any peace agreements are reached. But the public remains leery of giving up the Golan, and settlers still form an influential obstructionist lobby. And there has been a recent resurgence of violence in southern Lebanon and the occupied territories, which has heightened Israeli security fear s.

* Palestinians. Mainstream Palestinian leaders are aware that Rabin has a finite window of opportunity to make peace. But negotiations have been hindered by Syria's latest challenge to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, over the issue of who speaks for the Palestinians.

Last month Syria convened a coalition of 10 radical Palestinian groups to denounce the peace talks. The effect was to harden opinion in the territories.

Recent street protests in the West Bank and Gaza were believed to have been directed by followers of Mr. Arafat's Fatah wing of the PLO as an answer to Syria's challenge and as a way of shoring up the legitimacy of the Palestinian negotiators. "Fatah made its point," says the Washington Institute's Robert Satloff. "But with the rejectionists breathing down your neck there's even less latitude for the Palestinian delegates to make compromises.

"Nothing would force the attention of the Palestinians faster than progress on the Israeli-Syrian talks," he adds. A step that could hasten a breakthrough would be a clear message from Assad to the Israelis assuring them of Syria's peaceful intentions.

"Look for Assad to say sometime, maybe through a Western news organization: `We accept you, we recognize you, but you also have to recognize our problems,' " says the Syrian source.

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