The Mideast talks: Defying a history of arid diplomacy Following decades of hostility, Israelis and Arabs will face off on a common -- alien -- ground MIDDLE EAST CONFERENCE

October 27, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Fighting has always come more readily than talking for the parties invited to attend this week's Middle East peace conference in Madrid. And with few exceptions, Arab-Israeli wars have had a greater impact than peace talks on the region's map.

Five full-scale wars have been fought between Israel and its neighbors since 1948. Innumerable other clashes have taken place, including a war of attrition across the Suez Canal, attacks by Arab guerrillas, mutual artillery and rocket barrages, cross-border raids and, lately, the sporadic violence of the Palestinian uprising.

Thousands of people have been killed. Many more have been driven from their homes.

Through it all, Israel and all its Arab neighbors have come to the bargaining table only once before. All of them -- with the addition of Palestinians -- have pledged to try again at this week's meeting in Spain.

The process could break down in the first few days; it could last for years. If the leaders of the Middle East were convinced that history precisely foretold the future, they might not even bother coming. The prospects for success are not favored by the past.

Everyone will be trying to build on a largely inglorious diplomatic record that began on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in 1949.

Delegates from Israel and Egypt went there to negotiate armistice lines, trying to stabilize a cease-fire in the war that the Arab states launched after Israel declared its independence, and that the Arabs decisively lost.

The talks began with a distinct chill. The Egyptians refused to address the Israelis directly and would speak only to a United Nations mediator who sat on a sofa between them, as if the Israelis were invisible.

When the two sides began arguing in English and French, it was a sign of progress. Before long, delegates were swapping photos of their families. After six weeks, there was agreement on the armistice.

Israel reached a similar agreement with Lebanon in much more relaxed talks the same year in a customs hut just north of the eventual border. Out one window was a postcard-perfect view of the Mediterranean; out another was a view of minefields.

Each country seemed to fulfill a national cliche. So the most arduous sessions were between Israel and Syria, the most bellicose of Israel's opponents. Military teams met in a tent pitched in no man's land on a ruined highway, and they sweltered together through a summer.

At the same time, other negotiators were meeting in the Swiss lakeside city of Lausanne. That was the single direct precedent for the meeting in Madrid -- for the list of participants was nearly the same, and so were the underlying issues.

The same agenda as 1949

Then as now, the agenda included Jerusalem, Palestinians and the setting of Israel's permanent borders. Than as now, Israel was alarmed by the threat of pressure from the United States. Then as now, there were disputes even about how to begin.

Work began in April 1949 and, by any normal standards of international meetings, was a disaster.

Arab delegates refused to be in the same room with Israelis for formal sessions. At the same time, the mediators wanted no contacts to take place in private. Israel wanted to negotiate with each country separately. The Arabs wanted to negotiate as a bloc. Israel wanted to begin by discussing an overall peace settlement. The Arabs insisted on talking first about refugees.

The whole thing is one vicious circle," the head of Israel's delegation complained in a cable to Tel Aviv. Work consisted of "shadowboxing words and more words."

The sessions never moved past arguments about the agenda. In private meetings, the Israelis offered to allow some Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. But even the private talks collapsed. It was the last Arab-Israeli peace conference for 24 years, and that was time enough for three more wars.

A war is what finally reunited most of the parties, this time in Geneva, in December 1973. The conference there opened two months after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria against Israel, a war that restored the Arabs' self-respect but that Israel won on the battlefield.

Geneva was the idea of then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who was pioneering the shuttle diplomacy imitated lTC

during the last eight months by James A. Baker III -- the quick hops by jet among the region's capitals to pressure the maximum number of parties in the shortest possible time.

Mr. Kissinger devoted his efforts to solving small issues and intentionally avoided the large ones -- the step-by-step approach, as he called it. In Geneva, his goal was to win agreement for hostile armies to pull back. No one was brash enough to talk about peace treaties.

So Mr. Kissinger was delighted that the Palestinians were unrepresented; they were part of a problem no one knew how to solve.

The empty Syrian table

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