In the wake of Madrid, new hope

ANTHONY LEWIS

November 11, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

Boston -- THE CONFLICT between Israelis and Palestinians has been going on for so long that even in its pain there has been, for many, a kind of security. The established pattern of force and bitter words seemed safer than actually negotiating with the other side and lowering the barriers of hate.

One achievement of the talks in Madrid -- a singular achievement -- has been to make the idea of negotiation more attractive to both sides. Suddenly they were talking, and living with the other in peace seemed possible.

Quite by accident, the effect of the Madrid talks on Palestinian thinking was quickly measured. The chamber of commerce in occupied Gaza held its first election in 25 years. With political elections prohibited by Israel, it was a rare test of sentiment.

Gaza has been a stronghold of the fundamentalist Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. But Hamas won only two of the 16 seats at stake, while pro-negotiation supporters of the PLO took 13 and an independent one.

"The chamber of commerce elections are the message from the Palestinian streets to the peace conference," one of the winning majority, Mohammed al-Qidwah, said.

The message that Palestinians are ready to negotiate is of profound significance to Israelis. It tells them what so many have come to doubt, after all the years of hatred and dehumanization: that there are reasonable Palestinians, people ready to make peace, people not so different from themselves.

Over the years I have met those Palestinians: middle-class people, many of them, with a high concentration of professionals -- lawyers, doctors, accountants, journalists. I always thought they were more like Israelis than any other people in the Middle East.

But the ordinary Palestinians, with familiar aspirations for a decent life and a national identity, were drowned out by Palestinian terrorists. And the Palestinian political leadership was for so long reluctant to say plainly that it was ready to live in peace alongside Israel.

That was why those few days in Madrid mattered so much. For the Palestinian delegates spoke calmly and reasonably. They seemed open and confident in dealing with Israel's delegates. They shook hands; they chatted; they met Israeli journalists.

None of that will make the substantive negotiations easy when they begin.

But there is reason to think that many issues are negotiable within the agreed framework of an interim arrangement for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

Twelve years ago, after Camp David, Sol Linowitz acted as the American mediator in talks on the nature of the proposed "autonomy." He pointed out this week that agreement was reached then on Palestinian administration in many areas of government.

The hard question, and the inescapable one, is how to deal with the building of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is inescapable because the Palestinians cannot go into an agreement for an interim period knowing that at the end of it

they will be worse off because there will be more settlements.

The right to build settlements is such an article of faith for Prime Minister Shamir and his government that it is hard to imagine him forswearing it.

But in politics a party may insist on having rights while in fact not exercising them. One can imagine Shamir saying that Israel has no plans for new settlements during the period of negotiation on final arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza. And there could be an agreed requirement of joint approval for certain building projects.

If that central issue is to be overcome, the United States will almost certainly, in time, have to play a part in proposing ideas. President Bush has already made clear that he opposes the use of American funds to subsidize settlements that obstruct peace.

For the moment it is enough to note the good news of human respect between Israelis and Palestinians in Madrid. The Palestinian delegation leader, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, said, "We have seen you at your best and at your worst, for the occupier can hide no secrets from the occupied." Israelis could say much the same. Maybe the best now has a chance to prevail.

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