Elusive Vision of Peace

October 30, 1991

Hopes of the world greet the ceremonial opening of the Middle East peace conference today at the Royal Palace in Madrid. That is an awesome load for the delegates to bear. The last such conference convened under United Nations auspices in Geneva in 1973, with Egypt, Jordan and Israel present. It lasted one day and never reconvened. This conference has a stately schedule of speeches and rebuttals over three days. The world's hope must be that this rhetorical phase does not paralyze the subsequent talks, as statements of position by Middle Eastern disputants so often do.

Both the Palestinian delegation and Israeli government ministers have talked in refreshingly similar language about the possibility of negotiating Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza, while maintaining Israeli security control, before addressing the issue of permanent status. This is what the 1979 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt called for. In parallel talks, Israel and Syria should address the exchange of land for peace in the Golan Heights. Both governments have sounded intransigent on this issue.

Outsiders can propose all sorts of confidence builders. Suspension of new settlements by Israel would merit suspension of the Arab League economic boycott of Israel. Suspension would not be irrevocable, but a test of the other side's good faith. On the Golan Heights, all sorts of devices can be imagined to prevent Syrian reoccupation of the territory from again endangering Israeli citizens. Both sides are familiar with the means.

The peace conference came about after the collapse of the former Soviet foreign policy of supporting Arab intransigence. Positions changed in the crucible of the gulf war. These events caused the Syrian dictator, Hafez el Assad, to reposition his country in world affairs. That trauma also brought yearnings for peace by wealthy Arab states that always bankrolled the have-nots in conflict. President Bush was quick to harness these changes as momentum for a conference.

The other change came from the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Their four-year intifada against Israeli authority also repudiated the comfortable PLO diaspora leadership. These people want as much practical independence from Israel as they can get as soon as they can get it, not martyrdom in the cause of supplanting Israel. To reclaim the mantle of leadership, the PLO moderated its public positions.

All of these professed changes need testing. For the later, concrete negotiations under this conference to make progress, President Bush and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev need to maintain the catalytic role of which they spoke yesterday. But the disputants themselves must make the principal effort. Hopes, however incomplete and tentative, have been raised. No delegation at Madrid can want the responsibility of --ing those hopes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.