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.