A Bit of Progress on the Middle East

September 26, 1992

There is a glimmer of light in the endless Middle East peace talks. The sixth round, which suspended for the Jewish High Holy Days after four weeks in Washington, produced some momentum. This was not at the table, but in public comment by the participants outside the room. They are all coming back to Washington Oct. 21.

Palestinians have expressed greater confidence in Israel's intentions, based on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's public comments. The actual Rabin bargaining team and its tactics on Palestinian autonomy have not departed much from the previous regime of Yitzhak Shamir.

The closest thing to a breakthrough was in Syria's rhetoric for home and foreign consumption. Syrian leaders have suddenly started using such terms as "total peace" and "peace of the brave," where formerly they spoke only of their requirement for return of the entire Golan Heights.

Syria has not defined "total peace." As far as can be deduced about the talks inside the room, Syria is demanding total return of the Golan for partial peace, and Israel is offering partial return for total peace. But that is coming closer to a bargainable difference. Israeli citizens are now engaged in public discussion of how much of the Golan is returnable consistent with national security. That is a positive development.

A Syrian-Israeli agreement would be emotionally difficult but conceptually simple to achieve. Agreement with Lebanon would follow naturally in its wake. But agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be incredibly difficult to attain.

Timing matters. In June, Mr. Rabin gave himself a year to reach agreement with Syria and the Palestinians. Many observers believe the Israeli political pendulum would start swinging the other way after that. Yet the pace of negotiation is delayed by the U.S. election. Each side wants to know who the winner is and how the United States may compensate each concession.

To hear them talk, Middle East negotiators have come to believe that peace is finally attainable providing they can seize the opportunity while it lasts. If the respective governments truly believe that, the chances are enhanced. The obligation of American political leaders of both parties is to signal that the momentum must be maintained without let-up.

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