No smiles or handshakes, but they came

October 31, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

MADRID, Spain -- By the normal rules of etiquette, the coming-together yesterday of Arabs and Israelis was a social embarrassment. Most of the guests avoided looking at each other. Handshakes between strangers were taboo. When the hosts began to speak, the guests scowled.

Judged by the etiquette of the Middle East, the meeting was the best managed, most successful get-together any of the participants ever attended, in part because it was the first meeting of its kind. Everyone showed up as promised. No one stormed out in anger. No one overtly threatened his neighbor.

It was a session designed to convert the long forbidden into the possible, and eventually into the normal.

Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister of Israel, sat at the same table with the foreign ministers of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Sitting with them were Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Just by being present, Arabs and Israelis appeared to acknowledge each other as peers.

But it was a distinctly cool beginning. Members of the delegations communicated by nods, or the lack of them. When television cameras first focused on them, the most senior diplomats of the Middle East were shown to be in the same room but acting as if they were elsewhere. They stood with their backs turned toward each other to avoid the discomfort of looking each other in the face.

Mr. Shamir often frowned. Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister, avoided looking in Mr. Shamir's direction. Haider Abdel Shafi, leader of the Palestinians, fixed his gaze on his lap or on the tabletop, although Mr. Shamir was almost directly across from him.

"Shamir looks like he feels, and he feels a lot of pressure," Danny Shek, a spokesman for the Israeli delegation, said to explain Mr. Shamir's stern demeanor. "There's no point in him turning into a smiling person -- that's not Shamir."

Radwan Abu Ayyah, a spokesman for the Palestinians, suggested that the Palestinians could have smiled a little more themselves. "I would have told them just act like a very cool diplomat," he said. "I would show all the Palestinian pride and keep smiling all the time."

The beginning of peace negotiations that could last years was kept short. After eight months of preparation, the morning opening session of the peace conference lasted only 60 minutes, giving the delegates just enough time to follow the script crafted by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his aides.

Before the 60 minutes of work came an hour of carefully choreographed arrivals. The head of each of the delegations was driven in a limousine to the Royal Palace in central Madrid. Since Israel objected to Palestinians displaying a flag, the problem of national symbols was solved by having no flags for Palestinians, for Israel or for Arab states.

Each delegation head stepped onto a gold carpet, walked past soldiers holding medieval lances and continued up two flights of stairs, to be greeted by the Spanish monarch, King Juan Carlos.

As if to compensate for the lack of handshakes to come, the king held onto each visitor's hand and kept pumping it until he decided the conversation was at its end. Each person received a more perfunctory greeting from Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev were the last to arrive. Their cars -- a Cadillac for Mr. Bush, a Soviet-made ZIL for Mr. Gorbachev -- were exempted from the ban on flags.

While Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev chatted with King Juan Carlos, the delegations from the Middle East were left in the meeting room. If the Americans and Soviets secretly hoped the Arabs and Israelis would use the time to mix, they hoped in vain. Israelis and Arabs stood resolutely apart, each delegation forming a protective circle of its own.

Then they sat -- a momentous event. It was more than most of the parties had ever managed before. But even that act turned out to be less than what the Americans and Soviets might have wanted.

Arabs and Israelis were together, but they were in no way close. The table provided by the Spanish was enormous -- too wide to reach across, and the psychological gap was apparently even wider.

The table was covered in white and arranged in the shape of a T. Seated at the head were the representatives of Spain, the Soviet Union and the United States, including Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Bush.

Delegates from the Middle East sat along the T's longer leg. On one side were delegation heads from Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. Facing them were the chief representatives of Syria, the Palestinians and Jordan. A representative of the European Community joined them.

In the background was an official observer representing the Arab countries of North Africa and another observer for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

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