Cutting Through Mistrust Baker struggles to convince parties in Mideast that risks can lead to increased security.

May 19, 1991|By ROBERT RUBY

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem.--Depending on a person's politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict began with the 1967 war in which Israel captured Arab-occupied lands. Or with Israel's birth as a state, in 1948. Or in the late 1800s with the start of the Zionist movement.

Each party to the conflict has its preferred date, just as each side can cite reasons why it is almost entirely in the right. Israelis and Arabs, as if they inhabited separate worlds, can list acts of violence directed against them by the other, heroic sacrifices of their own, United Nations resolutions supporting their side, resolutions ignored by the other side, but remain unmoved by the history of their opponents.

There are claims of rightness based on religion, based on who inhabited a place first and based on the use of force. Every attempt to weigh the claims or to somehow adjudicate them is ultimately fruitless because they are only footnotes to the real subject of the conflict. That subject, which has never changed, is land.

Israelis and Palestinians are equally convinced they are the rightful inhabitants of certain territories. From those overlapping claims has come the violence and mistrust.

Anyone working to find a solution through negotiations will be asked the same questions by all the parties: Who will sponsor peace talks? In what forum? With whom as a final arbiter? With what guarantee that, once decisions are reached, all sides will comply?

Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent last week here and in Arab countries trying to answer the questions. His talks focused on the ground rules for a conference, and he claimed enough success to keep his two-month old initiative alive.

Mr. Baker has talked of the recent Persian Gulf war as opening "a window of opportunity" for peace, as if to tantalize the parties with a glimpse of tranquillity on the other side of the ledge. If all went well, he would coax them to dive through the opening.

All the parties have posed conditions for making a move, demands based as much on psychological needs as on facts on the ground. Fear of the enemy counts for as much as what the enemy has actually done.

As Mr. Baker has learned, any mediator faces enormous difficulties winning agreement on how a conference should be run. Israel and Syria, for example, continue to dispute what role, if any, the United Nations should play, with Israel wanting the U.N. excluded. Differences over procedures foreshadow the larger problems negotiators will face if and when they discuss substance -- the questions of borders and peace.

Israelis and Arabs seek security, hunger for it, but are suspicious of change. Mr. Baker's chances for success have always depended on his convincing the parties that by risking change their security will increase.

No one will quickly abandon his suspicions. After four major Arab-Israeli wars in less than than 45 years, and countless lesser conflicts, governments and private citizens insist they are entitled to react skeptically to anyone promising a permanent peace.


In 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. While the territories were taken in less than a week of fighting, Israel has spent 24 years debating what to do with them.

On some questions there was a consensus. East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were formally annexed and, in the eyes of the government and an overwhelming majority of the public, became no less a part of the state than Tel Aviv. But no other country accepts the annexations as final.

The Sinai became a subject for negotiations. Israel returned it to Egypt as part of the 1978 Camp David accords. In return, Egypt became the first -- and so far only -- Arab country to end its formal state of war with Israel and sign a peace treaty.

Gaza and the West Bank remain under Israeli control and are the subject of debate that at times threatens to tear the country apart. Left and right are defined largely according to the future each proposes for these territories.

The right, including Israel's current government, maintains they are essential for Israel's security and in any case are the country's rightful possession. Extremists, including at least one cabinet minister, advocate kicking out the Palestinians.

The left, which has been gradually enfeebled in national elections, supports plans for giving up most but not all of the land. To be extremist is to accept the territories becoming an independent Palestinian state.

No government since 1967 -- left or right -- has been able to take irreversible action. The territories have been neither annexed nor given up. Annexation would bring condemnation from abroad, while any move toward giving up control threatens to ignite fierce protests at home.

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