Parties to peace talks agree on little beyond gathering in Madrid

October 20, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Now that American arm-twisting has done its work, the Middle East is preparing itself for peace talks next week that will bring together mutually suspicious parties with contradictory goals.

The plan announced Friday calls for representatives of Israel, the Palestinians and four Arab nations to show up Oct. 30 in Madrid, Spain. President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will be the hosts of a diplomatic gala at which the delegates will experiment -- briefly -- with being in one another's presence.

Whether they can or even want to progress beyond that remains in doubt. The Madrid conference is intended to bring together the reluctant, the unrepentant, the untrusting and the desperate. All of them will be arriving from a region where people have long, unforgiving memories of wrongs.

None of the parties eagerly volunteered to attend. All have complained at various times to Secretary of State James A. Baker III about the ground rules. All have expressed doubts about the sincerity of the others and about the prospects of success.

At best, the Madrid conference will be an opening stage of negotiations that will last months and perhaps years. At worst, it will be the occasion for two days of fiery speeches that immediately send everyone home angrier and even more determined not to trust his neighbor.

On Friday, Mr. Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin formally extended invitations to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and a delegation of Palestinians. All the Arab parties have expressed their intention to attend. Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he will recommend today that his Cabinet vote to do the same, even if some ministers carry out threats to resign.

Mr. Baker's accomplishments are not to be minimized. In eight months of shuttle diplomacy that was often ridiculed by the press, he has gotten the parties to agree on the questions to be discussed, the issues raised by the five major Arab-Israeli wars of the last 43 years.

All of the parties want to know the permanent borders of each nation in the region. In deciding that, they must answer the question of who rightfully owns the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured from Arab states in the 1967 war and retained despite another war in 1973.

All the other questions are linked to the central issue of territory. How much land does Israel need to guarantee its security? How much security is enough? If Israel grants autonomy to more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, what powers will Israel retain? Under what conditions could autonomy lead to the creation of a Palestinian state? What would be the future for the Jewish settlements already there?

When the parties in Madrid disagree, who will mediate? And if agreements are reached, who will guarantee that all sides comply?

Mr. Baker's plans would defer the questions until several days after the opening session. Four days after that opening, the Arab and Israeli delegates are to begin meeting face-to-face -- Israelis with Syrians, Israelis with Lebanese, Israelis with Palestinians and Jordanians.

Those sessions are designed to re-create the conditions the United States used successfully at Camp David in 1978. There, the constant mediation of President Jimmy Carter and his aides kept the leaders of Egypt and Israel talking until they agreed on the framework of a bilateral peace accord.

Different agendas

This time the parties are coming together with radically different agendas.

Syrian President Hafez el Assad has made the recovery of the Golan Heights his primary goal. Palestinians are seeking an independent Palestinian state. Lebanon, whose policies are determined largely by Syria, demands the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

Mr. Shamir has an altogether different program. He has pledged never to relinquish the Golan Heights and never to agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. He has conditioned the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon on a withdrawal of much larger numbers of Syrian troops and the disbanding of hostile militias.

His government insists that no land will change hands. It wants talks to lead to treaties ratifying a map identical to the one that has existed since 1982, when Israel fulfilled the terms of the Camp David agreement by returning the last of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

According to Mr. Shamir, that action exhausted the formula "land-for-peace." What is left are talks to arrange "peace-for-peace."

On the other side of these seemingly insurmountable differences, the parties going to Madrid do have reason to desire peace, and to want it in a hurry. All of them are desperate for various kinds of relief from economic and social problems that could tear their societies apart.

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