Prospects at Madrid

October 28, 1991

The calling of the Middle East peace conference for Wednesday in Madrid has already changed facts. That does not, however, insure that it will succeed.

In Israel, public opinion polls rallied in favor of Israel's attendance. This suggests that opinion could move in still more conciliatory directions if ever given any reason to believe Arabs were moving similarly. As a result, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's most intransigent politician, claimed for himself the delegation leadership, despite the conference call for foreign ministers. Israel's more flexible foreign minister, David Levy, was humiliated and left to sulk. He, in turn, was thinking serously of challenging Mr. Shamir for leadership of the Likud Party.

In the Arab world, parties driven asunder by hatreds and war quickly came together. Notable was the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the PLO. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the PLO, with concurrence of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, agreed to rule out separate deals with Israel. Syria was unable, however, to obtain a pre-conference summit or a pledge to boycott regional issues until after Israel had vacated land. Syria, ostracized for supporting Iran against Iraq in the 1980s, and the PLO, condemned for supporting Iraq's seizure of Kuwait, are back in Arab good standing.

Israel is going to Madrid demanding peace before it will consider Arab demands, while the Arabs demand all disputed land before addressing issues of peace. No middle ground is visible to the naked eye. To add to the impasse, the U.S. has lost its economic power to move mountains. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ohio, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, predicts that the U.S. will not reward the parties financially as it did Egypt and Israel after the Camp David accord of 1978. He is probably right that both the money and the congressional votes are not there.

If any side wants to walk out, excuses abound. Israel can object to the PLO connections of the Palestinian delegation. Israel and Syria disagree on the venue for subsequent meetings. What would be politically harder would be to stay at the process, which would entail mutual reneging on ultimatums that were shouted for home consumption.

Just getting these parties into the same room is nonetheless a momentous achievement for Secretary of State James A. Baker III that works magic of its own. While overnight settlement of 43 years' accumulation of hostility is not possible, the aim now must be to translate any outcome into momentum, even "failure" into gain. So much has happened in the world in the last two years that it would be naive to dismiss this as impossible.

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