Extremism simmers under orderly progress toward Middle East peace ISRAEL-PLO PEACE TALKS

September 05, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Opening the Madrid peace conference in late 1991, President George Bush summoned a vision of "a Middle East no longer victimized by fear and terror, a Middle East where normal men and women lead normal lives."

Even as the astonishing prospect of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization seems to herald a new era in Arab-Israeli relations, Mr. Bush's goal remains elusive. Outside the peace process, a different Middle East is already emerging, torn by religious furies and a crisis of government legitimacy that will threaten its people and the interests of the United States and its allies indefinitely.

And just as it stood on the sidelines of recent groundbreaking talks and was surprised by their stunning results, the United States is likely, if history is a guide, to wind up reacting to events instead of controlling them.

The joint declaration of principles negotiated secretly by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization marks the first step in what could become a comprehensive peace between the Jewish state and all its immediate neighbors.

The war, however, was already over, save for the shouting.

Persuaded by four wars in four decades that they couldn't wipe out Israel, the neighbors started to end hostilities in the late 1980s when their chief sponsor, a collapsing Soviet Union, began jettisoning the financial and political baggage of its Middle East clients.

The plight of Palestinians still barred a formal cease-fire. It galvanized Arab populations and remained essential to their leaders' legitimacy. It blocked acceptance of Israel by Persian Gulf states dependent on U.S. protection. It prevented Jordan's King Hussein from acknowledging publicly his own back-channel ties with Jerusalem, and froze Egyptian-Israeli relations in a "cold peace" long after Camp David.

A crack in this monolithic pro-Palestinian front followed the 1990 Persian Gulf war, when Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other gulf states expelled many members of their Palestinian middle class and cut off millions of dollars in subsidies to the PLO for siding with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

With its infrastructure and fighting power weakened in the occupied territories and around the world, the PLO acquiesced in U.S. efforts to promote leaders from inside the West Bank and Gaza as Israel's negotiating partners.

That U.S. effort was just a cover for negotiations between Israel and the PLO, a facade that helped start a complicated process of reconciliation among Israeli and Arab governments in Madrid.

More than in the formal talks in Washington -- a ritual of limousines and public posturing -- this reconciliation advanced in the less structured and larger series of meetings on Mideast problems that cross borders: lack of water, a spiraling arms race and refugees. These talks also dwelt on hopes for economic prosperity thwarted by the absence of peace.

The moment for a deal came when the PLO, riven internally, appeared in desperate need of a lifeline.

"Our choices were to completely try to vanquish the other side or to strike a good deal with the other," Israel's ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch, said last week. "And if we had vanquished the other side, we would have ended with excellent terms but with no one to complete them with. Right now we have a good agreement on our hands and possibly a partner to complete it with."

The deal removes the key political impediment blocking the leaders of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon from reaching their own agreement with Israel while keeping peace at home. As an Arab diplomat said, the Israeli-Syria dispute over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, becomes merely one of "a mountain and 50 goats."

Uneasy leadership

But the broader peace that now seems within grasp is confined to just a portion of the Middle East and to a generation of leaders who will soon pass from the scene.

It excludes two oil-rich rejectionist powers, Libya and Iraq, one of which possesses and the other of which may again wield weapons of mass destruction. It also excludes the broader extremist front in the Muslim world that stretches from Iran, across Sudan in north Africa to Somalia, where the pestilent warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid is allied with Sudan.

This front helps to fuel a tide of Islamic radicalism that is destabilizing Egypt, threatens Jordan and Lebanon and is sending tremors throughout the Persian Gulf.

"If you ask the question, 'What is wrong with the Mideast?' " says Graham Fuller, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, "you gravitate back to pervasive dictatorship that is at the root of the turmoil: the abuse [of populations], the arming themselves to the teeth, the launch of war and involvement in terrorism."

The absence of freedom has denied Arab citizens the chance to reconcile themselves to peace as their leaders have done.

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