The Mideast Talks: Language and Symbolism

April 21, 1991|By MARK MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON. — Washington.--Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a lawyer who carefully weighs his every syllable, appeared before the microphones recently during his quest to launch a new Arab-Israeli peace process and said, in effect: Let's not quibble over words.

"What you call a conference, I mean the adjective you put in front of the word conference, it seems to me is really not anywhere near as important as whether or not the parties truly want to sit down and meet and have direct negotiations for peace," Mr. Baker said.

But much of Mr. Baker's current effort in trying to put together an international/regional peace conference/meeting revolves around words and details, because each is fraught with symbolism and suspicion for both sides.

For years, efforts to launch peace talks between Arabs and Israelis have gotten hung up on procedure.

In the course of several post-war trips to the Middle East -- he is now on an open-ended mission between Israel and Arab countries -- Mr. Baker has trimmed and shaved some of the key stumbling blocks, but key issues remain in the procedural maze.

One is the role of the United Nations and the international community.

The U.N.'s revival in moral and political stature during the gulf crisis would seem to make its involvement natural. Syria, for one, wants a "significant" U.N. role, although it and other Arab states appear to have backed off any idea of a meeting held under U.N. auspices.

Since Israel is the dominant military power in the region, Arab governments want international backing to press Israel to make concessions. Their chosen device would be a conference that would disguise from Arab masses the fact that direct talks with Israel may be taking shape.

Israel, however, views the world body as steeped in anti-Israeli, pro-Arab bias, the organization that equated Zionism with racism. It fears broad international involvement will push Israel 00 into a corner.

An added wrinkle last week was the demand by European powers, with historical and economic ties to the Middle East, for a role in the conference.

Another procedural problem appears to be whether the conference amounts to a quick ceremonial gathering leading to direct talks (Israel's preference) or remains in suspension ready to intervene or prod the parties into a settlement.

But perhaps no issue is more cloaked in symbolism than that of which Palestinians are allowed to show up.

By consent of just about everyone except the Palestinians themselves, the Palestine Liberation Organization should be kept out: Israel views it as a terrorist group, the United States won't deal with it because it refuses to punish those responsible for an attack on an Israeli beach, and the Persian Gulf states are angry over Yasser Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein.

But Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian who serves on the executive committee of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine and is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, says that no Palestinian participation will be possible unless the PLO sanctions it.

The PLO's current political weakness in the Arab world, by making it less confident, may also make it less flexible, he argues.

Israel would like to confine the Palestinian delegates to residents of the occupied territories, who account for fewer than half the Palestinians worldwide.

For those in the "diaspora," this represents a possible sellout of -- their dream of self-determination and of being allowed some day to return to a Palestinian state.

Residents of the occupied territories, they fear, would be willing to settle for some form of political autonomy far short of independence.

One of the most emotionally difficult issues for Israel is whether to allow participation by Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. To do so, they fear, could amount to conceding that Israeli control over the whole city is negotiable.

This whole issue may be finessed, however, with an understanding all around that now is not the time to grapple with the highly charged issue of Jerusalem.

Martin Indyk, executive director the the Washington Institute for Near East policy, who recently met with a number of Arab leaders and officials as part of a fact-finding trip by Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., says Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, custodian of Mecca, has stated "explicitly" that he does not want to deal with the Jerusalem issue now.

But even if this is set aside, the other seemingly intractable procedural issues cause many veteran watchers of Middle East diplomacy to view Mr. Baker's effort as just another diplomatic graveyard.

Perhaps with the exception of Jimmy Carter, however, the process has never had as determined a deal-maker trying to put the pieces together.

Driving the effort, as well, is President Bush's hope to leave the Middle East in far more stable shape than before the Gulf crisis, a hope clouded by turmoil in Iraq.

Mr. Indyk, who is in contact with administration policy-makers, is one of the few optimists, believing that for a combination of reasons all parties now want to see a peace process to move forward.

The nations involved, he says, are now "in close shooting distance" of an event of high drama in Arab-Israeli relations that could go "a long way toward reshaping the political environment."

Mark Matthews is the diplomatic correspondent of The Sun.

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