Mideast: Progress at Last

August 06, 1991

An editorial in Monday's editions incorrectly stated when Israel captured East Jerusalem. The correct date is 1967.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Secretary James A. Baker's sixth foray into Middle Easdiplomacy since the end of the Persian Gulf war has proved to be little short of remarkable. Launched at the time of the Moscow summit, during which Presidents Bush and Gorbachev issued a joint appeal for an October peace conference, Mr. Baker seems to have pushed all parties closer to negotiations than once seemed possible.

The tragic 43-year history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is so studded with disappointment that skepticism is in order. But the region did witness the stunning Egyptian-Israel peace 14 years ago. And the apparent assent of Syria's President Hafez el Assad to talk one-on-one with Israel ranks in potential with Egypt's repossession of the Sinai in exchange for granting Israel diplomatic recognition.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The stumbling block concerns the composition of the Palestinian delegation that would attend the peace conference. Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, not to be outdone by Mr. Assad's show of accommodation, gave Mr. Baker a qualified "yes" -- provided no PLO representatives, no Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and no Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza are present.

Before the gulf war, such conditions would have been non-negotiable. But PLO leader Yasser Arafat, having sided with Iraq in that conflict, is so weakened that his camp is sending out accommodationist signals. The question is how to save face. The Palestine Liberation Organization cannot afford, without humiliation, to let Israel dictate who will attend the peace conference. But this would not prevent the Palestinians from nominating representatives who do, in fact, meet Israeli criteria.

If this obstacle can be overcome, and some important Palestinians have suggested this is so, then the world may be witness to quite a spectacle: Israel negotiating with Syria and Lebanon, with all the implicit acceptance of Israeli sovereignty that would entail; and Israel dealing only with questions of limited Palestinian autonomy in regard to governance in the West Bank and Gaza.

Does this mean the Israelis have gained the objective of negotiating "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace?" Not quite.

Syria will never sign a peace accord with Israel unless it secures return of the Golan Heights. But this could come to pass provided there are sufficient security guarantees and international oversight to insure that Syrian shells will never fall on Israeli settlements below.

More intractable is the problem of Jerusalem, especially East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1973 war and is sacred territory for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will consider giving up claims to the city. Possibly, in the future, some international guarantee of access to religious sites may be the answer. Until then, Mr. Baker's task is to find an arrangement to prevent another conflict in what has become the world's most dangerous region since central Europe escaped the Cold War.

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