SECRETARY of State James Baker, the architect of the Arab-Israeli peace talks, hopes to lay a foundation for lasting peace. Instead, he may be drawing the participants into a diplomatic house of cards.
Certainly, the Madrid talks are an important breakthrough: They bring together Israel and three of its longtime enemies -- Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- for face-to-face talks for the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948.
However, that achievement is likely to lead to a diplomatic dead end, for there is no evidence that any of the participants are willing to make the compromises necessary for a negotiated settlement. The Arabs seek the return of territories occupied by Israel without offering real peace. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, on the other hand, seeks peace without returning any territory. It is unclear how the gulf separating these incompatible positions can be bridged.
There are three phases to the peace talks. The first phase involved a series of political monologues -- not dialogues -- in which the regional players repeated their historic grievances.
The second phase, which will begin several days after the current conference ends, will involve three bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. This will be the crucial arena in which most of the work will have to be done if there is to be a settlement. The purpose is to end the state of war between Israel and Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and negotiate an interim solution for the Palestinians that will involve a five-year period of limited self-rule.
The third phase, to begin several weeks later, will address
regional issues such as arms control, economic development, water resources and environmental issues. Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states are expected to join. This is an important element in the peace process because it gives the Arabs the opportunity to prove to Israel they are committed to building a lasting peace and not just interested in recovering territory lost in war. However, Syria already has indicated it will not participate in these talks unless Israel "makes progress" in handing over the occupied territories.
A number of things could scuttle the talks, but the "land for peace" issue looms large as a source of diplomatic deadlock. The Arab states, particularly Syria, continue to focus on the return of the occupied territories -- while neglecting to offer Israel a convincing vision of peace. Shamir remains adamantly opposed to sacrificing Israeli security interests by relinquishing control of the occupied territories.
The U.S. strategy for resolving these problems is unclear. Baker, renowned for playing his cards close to his vest, appears to have hidden them in his shirt. If the Bush administration is to help mediate a just and lasting peace in the region, it must adhere to several principles, including:
* The crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Arab refusal to accepIsrael's existence, not the status of the occupied territories. The Arab states rejected the United Nations partition plan and went to war against Israel in 1948, despite Israel's willingness to accept a Palestinian state next door. The PLO was formed in 1964 to "liberate" Israel, not to "liberate" the West Bank and Gaza, then under Jordanian and Egyptian control. The peace process therefore must focus not just on the territorial issue, but on broader questions of how to assure Israel's acceptance and security.
* The Arabs must negotiate with Israel, not the United States. Washington must make it clear that it cannot impose a solution. America can act as a catalyst, but must not jeopardize Israel's trust -- without which it will be very difficult for Israel to make the hard decisions necessary for a settlement.
* Because Israel's survival is at stake, the Arab side must give Israel irrevocable safeguards to reduce the security risks involved in returning portions of the disputed territories. Any territories returned must be demilitarized in perpetuity, and Israel should retain advance warning stations and defense bases on ** the West Bank.
* A lengthy transition period of up to 30 years of autonomy for the West Bank would be necessary to build confidence in the peace process. While the West Bank would acquire limited self- government in association with Jordan during this period, Gaza could become an independent state immediately, perhaps part of a confederation with the West Bank and Jordan, because it does not pose the same security risks to Israel. This Gazan state would be constitutionally prohibited from acquiring an army or allowing foreign military forces to be based there.
* The Arabs must take the initiative to convince Israel that they are interested in peace, not just in land. Unless Israel reaches this conclusion, it will not take the necessary risks for peace, since a flawed settlement is much more dangerous to its own security interests than to Arab security interests.
* Extremely thorny issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and West Bank water resources, should be addressed last. It is unrealistic to expect Israel to relinquish Jerusalem, since no Israeli government could do so without collapsing. At the same time, the Arabs are unlikely to accept a settlement that does not afford Muslims some degree of control over the Muslim holy places in the old city section of Jerusalem. Perhaps a Vatican-type arrangement could be worked out to satisfy both sides.
* Above all, the United States, Israel and the Arab states must patiently and persistently work to resolve their differences. The Madrid talks will not provide a quick-fix solution. Rather, they will only initiate a long, grueling round of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
James Phillips is deputy director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.