Even if All (Or Most) Mideast Leaders Agree to Sit Down at the Same Table They'll Still Be Far Apart

August 11, 1991|By ROBERT RUBY

JERUSALEM. — Jerusalem.--So Secretary of State James A. Baker III has done it, or almost done it: With the significant exception of the Palestinians, the parties to a half century of conflict in the Middle East have pledged to attend an international peace conference. On several, sometimes contradictory conditions. And if the wording of the formal invitations is acceptable. And if everyone agrees to a site. And if Mr. Baker indeed finds a face-saving formula for the Palestinians.

And then the hard part would begin.

Five months of cajoling and arm-twisting on the part of the U.S. have gotten the leaders of Israeli and Arab leaders closer than ever before to dealing with each other as equals. But their eventually sitting down together does not guarantee success.

Strong-willed personalities are unlikely suddenly to become softies. It is easy to imagine long-time enemies, after finally meeting face-to-face, deciding that every calumny, every propoganda broadcast alleging the other side was evil incarnate, was far too kind.

Hafez el Assad, the Syrian president, will not turn out to be a secret Zionist. Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's prime minister, will not emerge as a Palestinian nationalist. Palestinians will not graciously welcome the expansion of Jewish settlements on land they consider their own.

Different sides are bringing radically different expectations and agendas. Mr. Assad counts on Israel giving up territory captured in the 1967 war, including the Golan Heights. Mr. Shamir pledges that Israel will keep every inch of the territories it controls.

Even when the various parties say they agree, the agreement sometimes is only a polite fiction. In theory, each participant accepts that the peace talks are to be based on two United Nations measures. Their abbreviated titles have been invoked so often that they have the mystical qualities of prayer -- Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Prayers reflect the worshipper's desires. With support from the U.S., Arab leaders say the resolutions outline a formula requiring Israel to give up territory in exchange for a formal peace. Mr. Shamir maintains that the required trade was carried out in 19xx, when as part of the Camp David peace agreement Israel returned the last of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt.

According to Israel, land-for-peace is done. What is left is peace-for-peace.

Part of Mr. Baker's success is due to his willingness to allow the parties to continue holding such divergent views. He acknowledges there are conflicting interpretations of the U.N. resolutions. His solution? Adding the true meaning of 242 and 338 to the list of subjects to be negotiated.

Future progress may depend on similar sleights of hand. Mr. Shamir adamently opposes any role for Palestinians from East Jerusalem, in order not to weaken Israel's claim to sovereignty over the entire city. Palestinians have sounded no less adament in insisting East Jerusalem be represented.

A possible solution is the appointment of a person born in East Jerusalem and living in Jordan; at least one Jordanian cabinet minister fits the requirements. Israelis will say he is Jordanian. Palestinians can declare he is a Jerusalemite.

The same, slightly devious approach will be required to solve problems revolving around the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel demands the PLO be kept clearly on the sidelines and out of any talks. Would-be Palestinian negotiators insist they need the PLO's imprimatur to prove their legitimacy and to guarantee their personal safety.

A compromise probably will depend on a little willed ignorance. Mr. Baker has encouraged Palestinians to decide upon a list of negotiators known to be acceptable to Israel. It is no secret that the Palestinians will confer, directly or indirectly, with the PLO leadership based in Tunis. What then will be required is the PLO's public silence. If the PLO manages to resist the temptation to declare that the delegation is its own, Israel might be satisfied.

There is always the danger someone will misinterpret a wink of the eye for heartfelt agreement, a handshake for a declaration of true love. Since almost everyone has agreed to participate, everyone seems to be half-convinced that his opponents are ready to accept new reasoning and pay old debts.

Syria expects return of the Golan Heights. Lebanon counts on a withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. Palestinians want to take the first steps toward an independent Palestinian state. Israel seeks acknowledgement of its legitimacy and its control of East Jerusalem and other lands.

Fortunately, some people show signs of realism. Members of different communities acknowledge that leaders will not, cannot get everything they demand.

"All this time since 1967 has not been good for us, this waiting," said Mahmoud Mustafa, a Palestinian businessman in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. "Time has let hatred increase."

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