WASHINGTON — Washington. - Talking can be useful, but the talks among the parties assembled in Madrid cannot bring a comprehensive or lasting peace to the Middle East.
One reason is that too many belligerents were left out, including Iraq, Iran and various extremist groups associated with them and with the Palestine Liberation Organization. This is extremely important because Iraq and Iran -- who fought so bitterly for so long -- agree on two things: Their deadly enmity toward Israel and their detestation of the United States.
As talk of peace got under way, their threats continued. From Iran came the promise that Muslims who make peace with the Zionist entity are doomed to destruction. From Baghdad came talk of ''treachery'' and a promise that Palestinians would be supported against Zionism ''till all Palestine'' -- meaning Israel -- ''is returned to Palestinians.''
Around these governments are many violent people and groups that specialize in hijacking, hostage-taking and terrorist attack. Abu Nidal, George Habash, Nayif Hawatemah, Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy the support of these governments and, when necessary, their sanctuary.
These groups disassociate themselves from peace initiatives of all kinds and reiterate their goal of Israel's total destruction. Their threats multiplied in the days preceding the Madrid conference. Some of these groups are treated as constituent parts of the PLO and met with the Palestinian National Council in Tunis earlier this year.
Certain conclusions follow from these facts.
First, no group or government meeting in Madrid can guarantee Israel a chance to live in peace within secure borders. As long as so many governments in the region are committed to Israel's destruction, there can be no guarantee of peace. This is true as long as so many governments in the region are dictatorships, lacking the capacity to provide successors who will be bound by their commitments.
Israel is already a very small state, ill-positioned to significantly reduce its territory, knowing that it may be necessary to face continued violence from multiple sources. Thus there is no ''comprehensive,'' ''lasting'' solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict at this time. The problem can be resolved eventually if there develop in the region stable, constitutional states based on the rule of law and consent of the governed -- states strong enough to control violent factions in their midst.
It is not Utopian to expect that such states may emerge in the region in the near future. This is a region in transition. The worst of the current leaders are themselves manifestations of this transition. The worst -- Saddam Hussein, Mr. Arafat, Hafez el Assad and Muammar el Kadafi -- have relied not on traditional symbols of legitimacy, but on Marxism-Leninism. That ideology has now been discredited. A modernizing leader needs a modernizing creed. And the only credible one left is democracy. Are democracy and constitutional rule possible for the Middle East? Perhaps.
An interesting new book by Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington, ''The Third Wave,'' observes that ''in practice, with one exception, no Islamic country has sustained a fully democratic political system for any length of time.'' Moreover, Mr. Huntington says, where elections have occurred, fundamentalists have so far been the principal beneficiaries. However, he notes, cultural factors like Islam are themselves altered by economic modernization. Change came with lightning speed to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It could come to the Persian Gulf.
Until then, it seems unlikely that a ''comprehensive'' or ''lasting'' settlement of conflicts will occur, however skillful or persistent the effort. As in the Cold War, what is required is strength and patience for the long haul.
=1 Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.