They're Talking, Sort Of

May 13, 1992

Expect no quick results from the heartening but bewildering talks between Israel and its neighbors starting this week and next under the U.S.-Russian-brokered peace process. They are negotiating arms reduction in Washington, economic cooperation in Brussels, water management in Vienna, refugees in Ottawa and the environment in Tokyo.

Never mind that Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians boycott certain meetings. Despite that, the contacts are historic breakthroughs.

They also highlight undoubted truths: That none of the Middle East countries can afford the arms race. That Syria and Jordan cannot develop their water resources until Israel agrees. That Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt all pollute and fish in the same sea. That Jewish and Arab refugee problems have a tragic interconnectedness. That in trade, tourism and economic development, Israel and its neighbors have everything to gain as complementary partners and to lose as enemies.

Nobody doubts these truths. Which does not deter the participants from using the talks to score public relations points off each other. Nor does it stop the probability that the massive glut of excess arms in Russia and Eastern Europe will find Middle Eastern markets to the detriment of stability.

Looming over all is the June 23 Israel election, which turns on the issue most dividing Israel from Arabs: Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir promotes them as Biblically ordained, while the Labor Party opposition leader, Yitzhak Rabin, denounces them as paralyzing to the economy and discouraging Russian immigration. Current polls give Labor a healthy lead, but late Likud surges are common.

Mr. Rabin's vision of quick autonomy for Palestinians and an end to subsidies for settlements in the West Bank does not meet Palestinian demands. It does go half way, which is much farther than Mr. Shamir, who is campaigning as the man who will not give away the national birthright.

Clearly no Arab would make a concession to a Likud regime when he might hope to gain a more conciliatory Labor government next month. Israel's election campaign prevents early progress in these negotiations, but is entirely about them.

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