Middle East Breakthrough

October 19, 1991

The Soviet-American invitations to a Middle East peace conference in Madrid on Oct. 30 is a triumph for the brilliant, tactful, dogged and tireless diplomacy of Secretary of State James A. Baker III. To bring all parties this far, he achieved the improbable. From here on, it gets more difficult.

There was sufficient Israeli trust in American tentative approval of a last-minute Palestinian list of delegates to allow Israeli-Soviet diplomatic relations to be resuscitated. This was needed for Israeli acceptance of a Soviet-sponsored invitation.

The invitation would not have been issued without confidence that the obstacles had been surmounted to the point where the momentum of the conference would overcome the rest. These include: Israeli acceptance and PLO approval of the same Palestinian delegates; Syrian negative gestures up to the last minute including an attempt to delay the third phase of talks (regional problems) until the second phase (land for peace swaps) is completed; provocative expansions of Israeli settlement in territory the Palestinians claim; and the potential of terrorism by any group so inclined.

There is no question that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir opposes giving up land for peace but is responsive to U.S. pressure. Israel's Labor Party and the U.S. favor the principle, without specifying how much land. The various Arab parties are adamant about all land acquired by Israel in 1967, while fuzzy on how much peace. Israeli public opinion in measure supports intransigence because it is skeptical of Arab intentions. Israelis who understand Arabic and listen to Arab radio are more skeptical than others.

Until now, American public attention has focused on the intransigence of Israel. But if all parties show up at Madrid and proceed at the swift pace proposed, that spotlight would shift. It would dwell on Syrian and Palestinian behavior and rhetoric that have escaped heavy scrutiny heretofore. Syria's commitment to peace in return for Golan would need to be proven. The testing would extend to President Hafez el Assad's words, to Syria's weapons procurement, even to the Syrian state-controlled media and education. The same is true for the PLO, which despite Israeli posturing is an essential player in a lasting outcome.

The peace conference is not guaranteed to succeed. Most Americans have probably assumed the Israeli-Arab conflict to be permanent, as they did the Soviet-American Cold War. But to have come this far is a remarkable accomplishment, and in itself a much-needed positive influence on the even more daunting trials to come.

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