PRESIDENT Bush has achieved what eluded his predecessors: the great Middle East conference to discuss outstanding problems of the region, of which, at least in Arab and Bush administration eyes, the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most important.
Simply holding the conference with the area's principal players in attendance is no small feat; every American administration since Eisenhower's tried to get one going, and the only one that got past the organizing stage, the 1973-1975 Geneva Conference, broke up because it generated more conflict than peace. As Geneva amply demonstrated, having a Middle East conference is no guarantee that anything except frustration will come of it.
Realistically, then, what are its prospects? That depends on a host of related factors, of which the most important is unknown: the extent to which the parties are really willing to deal. The whole effort may yet collapse at some point, but whatever happens, it is important to signal what may be a dramatic, if unnoticed, change in the way American governments pursue peace in this region.
Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and longtime veteran of Middle East diplomatic wars, has pointed out that negotiations mean something different to Middle Easterners than they do to Americans and other Westerners. To Westerners, outcomes are the result of negotiation: It is the process that determines, in the end, who gets what, when and how.
In the Middle East, negotiations typically begin only when the parties agree on an outcome; it's like trading in the bazaar, where the serious business of setting a price doesn't start until both buyer and seller have pretty much agreed that a sale will take place. This helps explain why Arabs, Israelis and other Middle Easterners always put seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the path of diplomacy, demanding guarantees before negotiations -- or peace conferences -- can even begin, and why the whole business of peace-making in the region has always been so frustrating. The one recent exception, the Camp David talks, proves the rule: It succeeded because both Begin and Sadat entered the talks already disposed to make peace.
The road to the Bush-Baker conference was littered with preconditions and demands for guarantees. The Israelis wanted a veto on the composition of the Palestinian delegation and a free hand on territorial issues; the Syrians wanted guarantees that the Golan Heights would figure prominently on the agenda; the Palestinians, openly or quietly supported by most Arab states, insisted that Israel agree beforehand to freeze all settlement activity.
What is new is that the U.S. itself put preconditions on the conference, targeting its oldest ally in the region, Israel. The message to the Shamir government was clear enough: Unless the Israelis agreed to a freeze on settlement activity in the occupied territories before and during the conference, there would be no U.S. loan guarantees to help finance the resettlement of Russian immigrants.
Implicit in the warning were two further threats: If Israel remained obdurate, the conference would be held without it. Further down the line, U.S. grants and loans to the Jewish state would be cut off or diminished.
Given a visible decline in pro-Israel sentiment in the Congress and the country, it was obvious not only that the president could make the loan guarantee warning stick, but that this administration was willing to change, and change radically, the ground rules under which previous U.S. administrations played the Middle East game. That doesn't mean that the administration will now abandon Israel or shift to a general pro-Arab stance. There was still enough pro-Israel sentiment in Congress and the country to persuade the president to call on the United Nations to repeal the General Assembly's obnoxious "Zionism is racism" resolution, and to reassure American Jews and Israelis alike that the U.S. remains Israel's steadfast friend.
The fact remains that the ground has shifted under the Shamir government. It can no longer count on continuing American toleration for its policies, nor use the bargaining chips it accumulated for its forbearance during the war with Iraq.
How will all this affect the conference? The problem with setting preconditions and demanding guarantees in advance is that unless those who set them want the conference to succeed, the preconditions can easily be used to sink the whole enterprise. If the Palestinians, with Arab help, insist on pushing their claim to Jerusalem, the Israelis will almost certainly walk out. And if Shamir, American pressure notwithstanding, continues to insist on an unconditional right to settle and/or annex the occupied territories, the Arabs will refuse to talk further.