The Middle East After Madrid

November 05, 1991

The Madrid conference changed the politics of the Middle East. Israel is now negotiating with the Palestinians, even talking to the PLO, which instructs the Palestinian delegation. But it is a PLO taking guidance for the first time from its moderates, those very delegates. They redefined the cause as the concerns of people living under Israeli rule, rather than of those in permanent exile whom Yasser Arafat personifies.

The conference brought Jordan back into the moderate mainstream of Arab life as the country with which Israel could live in peace if only more militant, distant and wealthy Arab states allowed. This was the position that Jordan vacated while supporting Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, but has now reclaimed. King Hussein, the well-known former moderate, is a moderate again.

No one knows what game Syria's President Hafez el Assad is playing, least of all his fellow Arabs. His stunning alliance with the U.S. against Iraq after his Soviet support vanished was the change in the Arab world that made Madrid possible. Syria showed up to talk to Israel, which in the past it would have condemned any Arab state for doing, but once there said only what it had always said.

Yet Syria has responded to urgings from Egypt and Saudi Arabia and has carried Lebanon along. They may say that no good came of the meeting and they may have no venue for the next round, but they have not repudiated contact with Israel.

For its part, Israel has not displayed the cards held close to its vest. Its opening position on territories is no more giving than Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has always been. Israel is using new settlements to instill a sense of urgency in the Arab side. The notion that time is not on the Palestinian or Syrian side is the opposite of extremist conventional thought. Israel suggests, if only by body language, that a ban on new Israeli settlements is something to be negotiated for a quid pro quo, not the unilateral gesture that the U.S. had urged.

But Israel clearly cherishes its new dialogue with Jordan and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have won a separate identity in the twin tracks on which those talks will proceed. Jordan has given its implausible price, in the form of a statement from Amman that one-half million Palestinians, who fled there in 1967, would have to be moved out of Jordan (where they threaten the kingdom) to the autonomous Palestine to be created.

A week ago, the world dared imagine a Syrian separate peace with Israel even if the PLO objected. Now the vision is the other way round. Progress has been made, but not peace. Washington with Moscow's assistance should keep up pressure for more meetings and for mutual concessions. Meanwhile, every effort should be maintained to keep Syria from increasing armaments and tensions. Syria cannot be forced into peace, but it should be denied any alternative.

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