Washington -- IF THE world had not changed in the Middle East, the extraordinary peace conference in Madrid would be just another exercise in rancor and hopelessness. We would dismiss it outright as another Halloween prank.
But it is the deeper realities of the conference that should engage us at this fragile time, and even give us some hope. For behind the ceremonies, the bigger truth is that the "earth has moved" in the Middle East during the last 10 years.
The first and biggest change that can be seen is in the position of the United States in the quagmire. Until the Bush administration, the role that the world saw was of a United States at the bidding of whatever Israeli government was in power. Today, thanks largely to the dogged and brilliant diplomacy of Secretary of State James Baker III, appreciable power has reverted to real power: In effect, power has moved in the area away from the manipulative small states, both Israel and the Arab countries, and back to the superpowers.
This, of course, was in part because of the American success in the Gulf War. A victor of that magnitude who then allowed himself to be pushed around by dependent states would indeed be the subject of consummate ridicule. But the change also directly resulted from the end of the Cold War and all that meant in terms of the little states being able to play off the big states against each other.
One could see an ending to the unbalanced relationship last summer, when fervent supporters of Israel, such as House Speaker Thomas Foley, told journalists privately that, if the president really held back on the $10 billion of loans to Israel, Congress would support the president. It did. Foley's main reason? Congress was tired of the way that Israel's rightist government kept insulting James Baker with more settlements every time he came to Israel to talk peace.
In terms of the world's -- and particularly America's -- perception of Israel, the world has also changed. Here, too, for the first time, everybody pretty much knows the score.
Even though the Labor Party keeps speaking out courageously against the settlements and the provocation of their annexation, and even though the polls show a majority of Israelis would give up land for peace, the fact is that the world sees years of right-wing Israeli governments spurning the very Western values that infuse most civilized nations. Absolute virtue has gone out of the original victims.
None of this is meant to indicate that the Arab countries are,
then, more deserving in many eyes in the United States and Europe. Iraq remains Iraq, a mafia masquerading as a state. Syria remains Syria, a ruthless dictatorship with its own distinct geopolitical aims in the area, which could all too easily derail the peace process.
On the other hand, there is wide agreement that Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states truly want some kind of settlement to allow them to drown the radicals in the area and concentrate on developing their own countries. It is to the maturing process in these countries -- there were no street revolutions in most of the moderate countries at all during the Gulf War -- that the Baker plan is playing.
Realizing these changes in the political, social and psychological state of the area, many of them subtle but many of them also
tectonic, Baker moved with a program on Mideast peace that is highly practical and yet also keeps the United States outside as a fair-minded, objective broker for the first time.
The administration does not dream impossible dreams of instant peace. Instead, it sees its role simply as keeping the Arabs and the Israelis talking, talking, talking. The U.S. secretary knows that the actors will walk out, spew invective, and do all the juvenile things they do so well. But there now is a "new fact" , that of the peace conference, which effectively creates a different situation that will then need to be addressed.
In Washington's Phase One of the process, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the two new friends, will try to inspire all the lethargic peacemakers with a vision of a new age. In Phase Two, bilateral talks will take place, with all the players talking face-to-face for the first time in history. Washington is hopeful that will lead to months and months (and possibly years and years) of negotiations, which will eventually lead to a new political architecture in the area.
One hates ever to appear optimistic in the Middle East its demons are so malign. Yet, this is a great deal more than one could have anticipated at this moment in history. One need not expect the moon from this process to say that it represents one giant step forward indeed.