PARIS. — Paris -- The principal thing achieved at the Madrid peace conference was to put an end to that dehumanization of enemies that has accompanied the long struggle between Israelis and Arabs. The Palestinians notably imposed themselves upon the consciousness of ordinary Israelis (and Americans) as human beings rather than as caricatured terrorists and fanatics.
The Arabs, even the Syrians -- bleakly demanding their maximum objective as the condition for further negotiations -- were compelled to begin talking with Israeli humans, not Zionist abstractions.
This was very important, even if little else tangible was accomplished. It is the true precondition for negotiations that one negotiates with people, not entities. The other important gain of the conference was that it emphasized again what Secretary of State James Baker has said to all sides again and again: that there now is no rational alternative to a settlement.
There certainly is none for the Palestinians, for whom a continuation of the present situation will bleed them as a people and lead them toward that non-existence which Israeli hard-liners have always insisted should be their condition: that no Palestinian people exist; that Jordan is Palestine.
However, every rational Israeli also knows in the fundament of his being that Israel has no worthwhile future as a state where Jews rule by violence over an Arab minority -- eventually to become a majority -- deprived of freedom and held in economic and social subordination. Only the apocalyptic Orthodox sects have a logical defense for accepting the status quo: that the Last Days are near, and the Messiah approaches, to save His people and make all right.
If the Messiah is not approaching, the future for an Israel in permanent occupation of the territories and their Arab populations is dark, whatever Ariel Sharon's bluster. It is dark not because of the external threat to Israel but because of the internal one, of which the expansionist housing minister, and would-be prime minister, is himself a sign. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is made of different stuff. Like Menachem Begin before him, his commitment is to reality, as he demonstrated with his opening address to the Madrid meeting.
What Syria says and does in the affair is barely relevant to the core issues. The Golan Heights are not the problem. The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is the problem; peace will only be found there.
Mr. Baker deserves the greatest credit not only for having brought everyone to the table in Madrid, and persuading them to go on with the bilateral talks, but also for having understood -- which few did, certainly not the Israelis -- that Israel's veto of dealings with the PLO afforded the Palestinians an opportunity to remake themselves politically, with a new generation and kind of leaders, and effectively to jettison Yasser Arafat together with the ideology of terrorism and the PLO's baggage of assassinations, irrelevant rhetoric and political incompetence.
Mr. Baker is said to want to be president. Sponsoring a settlement in the Middle East is not actually the way to go about that. It may be the way to win a Nobel Peace Prize -- a deserved one. But the American voter is interested in affairs at home, as President Bush is finding out, to his anxiety. Mr. Baker's Middle East accomplishments, however large they prove to be, offer little electoral mileage to either prospective (or present) chief executive.
And that seems the best thing of all about Madrid. This administration is actually doing something important because it needs to be done and the United States is in a position to do it; because it is prudent to do it to forestall future crises; because it is worth doing even though it offers no big political payoff.
That is worth the Nobel Prize in itself. It even suggests that Mr. Baker might not be like so many others who consider themselves presidential timber. What an interesting thought that the United States might find itself with a presidential candidate who has placed public interest over political advantage!
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.