Last Bus to Peace


October 28, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- Mr. Baker has led Arab and Israeli stallions to the water. Will they drink? They may. The successful effort by the American secretary of State to bring all sides of the blood-drenched Middle Eastern conflict to a single table has changed the nature of the situation.

The combatants must produce new reasons for being where they are, or for leaving the table. They have a new challenge before them to which they have to make a new response. A new fact has been created: the conference itself. That new fact creates others. There is a peace party in Israel which did not exist before: The tangible possibility of a settlement has unlocked ambitions and emotions buried in the past under the anxieties and frustrations produced by unrelieved Arab and Palestinian hostility, and by repeated wars.

Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's decision to himself conduct the negotiations for Israel raises the stakes but means that if anything is decided it will be implemented. It disarms the rightist opposition to negotiations. Before, they would have attacked any concession as betrayal. Mr. Shamir will be much harder to deal with than his foreign minister, David Levy, would have been. But Mr. Levy lacks Mr. Shamir's domestic political weight.

The conditions for peace set out by Mr. Shamir Tuesday, in talks before the European Jewish Congress and the Parliament of Europe, are irreproachable. They were that there be ''a change of attitude'' by the Arabs -- a vague demand, which their presence at the conference would seem itself to satisfy.

His further conditions were that the Arab governments deal directly with Israel on a basis of equality, that there be ''a small beginning of democracy'' within the Arab countries that have no true parliaments, parties of opposition, or free press; and finally that a mechanism of defense of fundamental human rights be installed, with particular attention to the situation of the remaining Jewish communities inside such countries as Syria.

Irreproachable conditions, but in their totality unattainable, within the context of a peace conference, as Mr. Shamir knows. However, his first and second conditions are those which count at the moment, and they are on the way to being fulfilled.

Mr. Shamir's further wishes for a political evolution in the Arab countries are no doubt shared in Amman and Cairo as well, and in liberal Arab political circles elsewhere. A significant liberalization in Arab politics will be the result, however, not the precondition, of the Madrid meeting. One fundamental cause of despotic government and political repression in the Arab world is the confrontation with Israel, in the name of which every excess has been justified.

If this conference can produce a settlement between Palestinians and Israel, the problems of Israel with the Arab governments will end, too. The ''Arab-Israel'' struggle has always been an extension of the Palestinian-Jewish struggle over the possession of the Holy Land, to which both make political and historical claims.

They will have to divide it, if the present meetings are to succeed -- or accommodate their rival claims in some kind of condominium arrangement with concurrent sovereignties, or in a new system of autonomous communities and divided sovereignty. Mr. Levy says that Israel is ready to negotiate ''the autonomy of the territories and then their final status.'' That says autonomy is negotiable, and potentially to be achieved, and that another and final status can exist.

At present, what this might be is a matter of much more passionate debate within Israel, among Israelis, than between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is why so much doubt must exist as to whether the conference can produce a settlement. The unanswered question is less what the Palestinians would accept -- they know that at best they will not be offered much -- than what the Israelis are capable of giving up, and for what.

The Palestinians were brought to the table by Mr. Baker's warning that this bus will come only once. Get abroad or you will never have another chance, he said. The Israeli government was brought to Madrid mainly by American economic blackmail. It is important, however, that the Israeli government and political leadership also understand that the bus they are on is making a one-way trip.

If the conference fails because of what American public opinion sees as Israeli intransigence, not only will the bus not come back but Israel will find itself compelled to learn the economics of self-sufficiency. It has not had to do so in the past.

There already is disenchantment with Israel's policies and expansionism in the United States, and the Cold War is over. The Middle East no longer seems that important to American voters. The Israeli authorities were taught this lesson in September, when they discovered that President Bush's decision to withhold loan guarantees to Israel was politically popular in the U.S.

If, on the other hand, the conference collapses because of Arab and Palestinian intransigence and division, Israel will benefit in the short term, since the American voter and political class will write off the Arabs as serious interlocutors -- as the victims of a political perversity too deep for Americans to address. American concern for the Middle East nonetheless will continue its secular decline, and Israel will find itself, its needs and its interests, increasingly marginalized to American preoccupations. All concerned would thus be a great deal better off if Madrid produces a success.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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