Jerusalem. -- It is Israel that will pay the price of the ''peace'' talks that begin tomorrow in Madrid. The way the Middle East equation is structured, Israel can only come out a loser.
The parley is based on the long awaited acknowledgment by the Arab world of Israel's right to exist. Having always opposed peace, an Arab leader who announces he has changed his mind and now favors it is considered to have taken a major step that needs to be rewarded. If Israel stands up and announces that it, too, is in favor of peace, the response would be, ''so what's new.''
This is where Israel's problems begin. For decades it was understood that when an Arab country acknowledges Israel's right to exist, it would be reciprocated with an Israeli concession, or the momentum of the peace process would grind to halt. But if the recognition of Israel's existence is considered to be a concession, while Jordan's, Egypt's or Syria's existences never need to be reiterated or re-pledged, then the playing field isn't level.
Another asymmetry is that only Israel has legitimate security concerns. The Arabs have none, as no Jewish state has ever vowed to annihilate an Arab country. Only Israel will be expected to take ''risks for peace'' because only Israel is at risk.
When Israel's existence is put up for debate, the unbiased observer (to remain unbiased) feels obliged to hear the opposing argument as to why, perhaps, Israel may not have a right to exist. If Israel is so eager to receive Arab approval of its existence, the innocent bystander suspects that maybe Israel's right to exist isn't so self-evident, after all.
For such a poor negotiating position, Israel has only itself to blame. Every Israeli government including the present one has stated its primary goal is Arab acknowledgment of its existence before beginning any peace talks. The entire exercise is self-defeating. Israel's being is not dependent in any way on the recognition of a fact by any Arab state. Israel is, therefore it is!
Similar mistakes were made in combating the Arab boycott. By insisting that the Arabs rescind it, Israel turned the issue into a powerful Arab bargaining chip. Trade is a two-way street; in fact, bilateral trade and technology transfer with Israel will probably be more beneficial to the Arabs than to Israel.
Israel should announce that it no longer recognizes any Arab country's right to exist. Then, together, all the Arab countries and Israel can formally acknowledge each other's existence. The next time an Israeli diplomat is asked what Israel is prepared to concede if Syria acknowledges Israel's right to exist, the reply can be: ''the same thing Syria offers Israel when Israel acknowledges Syria's right to exist.''
Similarly, Israel should announce an economic boycott of the Arab world. Then both sides can unilaterally abrogate their boycotts, enabling Arab and Israeli traders to buy whatever they wish from each other.
It's often said that Israel needs to be recognized by the Arabs to ''normalize her condition.'' Don't the Arabs need to live in a ''normalized'' condition, too? Israel is often promised that in return for evacuating the territories she will be entitled to ''safe and secure borders.'' Don't Arab nations also benefit by having their borders ''safe and secure?''
Somewhere along the line Arabs were led to believe that peace is only good for Israel. Peace with Israel is a goal in and of itself for the reason that it is better to be friends with your neighbor than enemies. If any peace treaty is not built on these foundations, how genuine will it be?
The Arabs should not be induced to attend a peace conference to satisfy America or be rewarded for doing so with additional aid from Saudi Arabia. The only reason the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty has endured is because Egypt believed peace with Israel was a worthy enough goal, regardless of whether it solved the Middle East conflict. Unless other Arab countries have the same attitude, there is little chance of a lasting peace.
The failure of Israel's negotiating strategy is that it never made any demands of its own, but expended its energies defending its treatment of the Palestinians or advertising the declining infant mortality rate of Israeli Arabs. At the Madrid conference, Israel should make a few demands of its own.
For example, it isn't enough that Arab nations acknowledge Israel's existence. If the Arabs are truly interested in peace they should commit themselves to a gradual progression to democratic forms of their own governments.
If the Bush administration spent more time urging Arab monarchs to abdicate their thrones and dictators to replace their authoritarian regimes with democracies, a genuine historical opportunity for peace might indeed be upon us.
Joel Bainerman is an Israeli journalist.