Trying to Figure Out Who Won the Middle East Peace Talks

November 10, 1991|By RICHARD B. STRAUS

The Middle East peace conference in Madrid showed what is possible when a fight ends with the victor unable to accept he has won, the vanquished unwilling to admit he has lost and the referee insistent on keeping the outcome to himself.

Of course, it helps if the winners are the neurotically insecure Israelis, the losers are vainglorious Arabs and the referee is the ever wily U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

The unsentimental secretary of state has crafted a negotiating process based mainly on the cold calculation that the loss of two wars -- one cold and one hot -- had left the Arabs desperately weakened and therefore ready to negotiate an end to their decades-old bitter dispute with the Israelis.

For even those Persian Gulf states who had no truck with the always godless and now powerless communists found themselves in trouble this spring. After all, they had to rely on 500,000 U.S. troops to protect them from fellow Arabs. As one State Department official said of Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, "It's not going to be easy for the Defenders of the Faith, the Guardians of the Holy Places to justify having to call in the Crusaders."

Syria, Egypt and Jordan were even worse off. The first two had provided cover for the destruction of Saddam Hussein, who, despite his vilification in the West, was viewed throughout much of the Arab world as a latter-day Saladin.

Jordan's King Hussein was caught between his personal inclination for things Western (from education to wives), and his population's passion for his Iraqi namesake. He emerged a double loser -- penniless and friendless, with a restive population increasingly turning to Islamic fundamentalism.

As for the Palestinians, their embrace of Iraq and nostalgia for old-time Soviet power -- which included a premature offer of congratulations to the coup plotters in the Kremlin -- devastated their supporters everywhere.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Israel, where the spectacle of young Palestinians standing on rooftops, cheering incoming Iraqi "Scud" missiles, helped eliminate any remaining domestic constraints against mass construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

However, at the same time, Baker also realized that Israel had not emerged from the war unshaken. For a people who crave recognition, it was mortifying to be told the best contribution they could make to combating the Iraqi menace was no contribution. Compounding this misery was an acute sense of vulnerability, as they had once again faced the specter of poison gas.

Into this swirl of emotions stepped the master deal-maker from Texas. Like his best buddy of 30 years, President Bush, Mr. Baker is in no danger of being accused of possessing "the vision thing." But in the Middle East, plagued for two milleniums with more than its fair share of prophets, a little bit of down-home common sense seemed just the thing. Moreover, Mr. Baker's unsentimental view of peoples' strengths and weaknesses started with his own.

To be a Texan, an ex-banker and Mr. Bush's best friend may be a nifty prescription for extracting a good deal from a down-and-out Arab world. But it is not exactly what the doctor ordered for a bunch of powerful, if insecure, Israelis and their supporters in the American-Jewish community. For this missing component, Mr. Baker turned to others, beginning with his top aide, Dennis B. Ross, the director of policy planning.

As the shuttle diplomacy of recent months increased in duration and intensity, Mr. Baker uncharacteristically expanded his tight inner circle to include a few more experts whose knowledge of and sensitivity to Israel, like that of Mr. Ross, was well-documented. These "food processors," as Mr. Baker nicknamed them, helped fashion the intricate formulas designed make the Israeli government, in the words of one Baker aide, "say yes, in spite of itself."

Central to this approach was the appreciation that Israel, as a small, democratic country, is susceptible to violent swings in public opinion. As one State Department Middle East expert says, "We count on the fact that the Israeli government must always be looking over its shoulder at public opinion. [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir and his friends may have voter sympathy today for certain hard-line policies, but that can change overnight if the Arabs shift even a little."

In the end, it came down to such a shift. And, appropriately, Mr. Baker bet on the Arabs while remaining skeptical about Mr. Shamir. His aides took the opposite view, questioning whether the Syrians, in particular, could accept what amounted to the United States dictating terms acceptable to the Israelis -- even if made more tolerable by Baker-provided camouflage. But they told the secretary that, if the Arabs signed on, Mr. Shamir would have no choice but to follow.

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