Next Round at Madrid

November 02, 1991

Talks between Israelis and a Jordan-Palestinian delegation, scheduled for Madrid tomorrow, hold hope of setting up a meaningful dialogue, perhaps a negotiation, conceivably leading to Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza. What other negotiations prescribed by the Baker plan will materialize remain to be seen. Hope is not lost. Bilateral talks (which Israel sought) are the benefit for which the cloud of dust kicked up by the Madrid conference (which Arabs wanted) was the price.

Any assessment of the Madrid speeches and rebuttals is more drama review than political analysis. Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lived up to the expectations of his admirers and detractors. But it is important to notice what he did and did not do. He condemned making territory the only topic; he did not reject it as a topic. He denounced Syria in the harshest terms, but in the context of highly conciliatory approaches to Lebanon and Jordan. He was accommodating to Palestinians while anxious to tick off sins of Palestinians past, hoping to deny them victim status.

Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister, responded to the attack on his government with a diatribe demonizing Mr. Shamir. It was dismaying to anyone who thought that the conference had been convened because Mr. al-Sharaa's boss, President Hafez el Assad, was seeking a new and constructive role in the Middle East and history. But Mr. Sharaa ruled nothing out. It could all have been a smokescreen behind which real accommodation might begin. Perhaps. What is visible is that Mr. Shamir spoke as if he hoped to divide the Arabs, and Mr. al-Sharaa as if to go over Mr. Shamir's head to more moderate Israelis -- when the real effect of their rhetoric would be the opposite.

Certainly the stars of the show in a public relations sense were the Palestinians, for their reasonableness and moderation. Hanan Ashrawi and Haidar Abdel-Shafi are raised from local to world figures. Israel's insistence on a Palestinian delegation free of PLO taint ensured a Palestinian voice better able to win the world's sympathy than the PLO could provide. But it also raised the importance of moderates within the Palestinian political community, which is what Israelis hope to see.

The three days of Madrid began with third-party hopes for a Syrian-Israeli accord, but ended with the substitute vision of a Palestinian-Israeli accommodation. Either would be breathtaking. Taking the rhetoric at face value produces a dismal prognosis. But the plan is going forward. The next phase is to begin. That's all the result anyone sought from the conference. We could have wanted softer, more generous language and greater empathy for the other side. But concrete negotiations are beginning, if only with sites and procedures as their substance. That is a comparative triumph.

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