It is traditionally the time of year when hope blossoms in the Holy Land. And last week, as Christians celebrated Easter and Jews marked Passover, optimism about the possibility of an international peace conference on the Middle East was growing. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that he was determined to press ahead with his drive to launch the conference, despite opposition from the right wing of his own coalition government. Then, European Community President Leo Tindemans of Belgium went on a whirlwind diplomatic mission to moderate Arab countries after receiving signals that they too were seriously interested in multilateral peace talks. And at the United Nations, Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar discussed the prospect with the five permanent members of the Security Council. In Washington there were even indications of a slight softening of U.S. opposition to a conference that might have to include the Soviet Union.
But there were also reasons for concern. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the army was on alert following the terrorist killing of a Jewish woman. The woman, 35-year-old Ofra Moses, was burned fatally and her husband and three children severely injured when terrorists lobbed a Molotov cocktail through the open window of the family car on April 11. When
angry Jewish settlers attacked Arab property in reprisal, and prominent Palestinians were detained without charge, a protest demonstration at a Palestinian university led to the killing of a student by Israeli troops.
Israeli right-wingers claimed that the terrorist attack, like other recent disturbances, was a direct result of the Peres peace drive. Said Shlomo Rattan, hard-line mayor of the West Bank
Jewish township of Alfei Menashe, where the Moses family lived: “The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] responded to Peres by sending its delegate with a petrol bomb.” Peres, supported by his centre-left Labor Party, wants to convene a conference under the umbrella of the UN Security Council and its five permanent members — the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China. The conference would be expected to lead to direct talks between Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. But Israeli i Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and members of his right-wing Likud S bloc, which governs in partnership with Labor, say that they fear that the Soviets and the Arabs would work together to force Israel to make unacceptable concessions. Shamir told a recent meeting of Likud parliamentarians that the Peres plan was “suicidal” and “nightmarish.” But Peres declared, “The real nightmare is the prospect of more dead in another Middle East war.”
According to one of his closest aides, Peres is convinced that the need for a conference is so pressing that he is willing to risk the breakup of the coalition government, which has been in office since 1984. “If progress toward an international conference is stopped by our coalition partners, we will go to
the country,” the aide told Maclean’s last week. “Peres believes that peace would be a convincing election issue.”
Shamir, a former leader of the Stern Gang terrorists who fought British rule before Israeli independence in 1948, takes a hard line on peace overtures. He opposed the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, and he is against giving up any of the West Bank and Gaza Strip territory that Israel has occupied since the Six Day War of 1967.
Shamir has accused Peres of wanting “peace at any price, including surrender,” and his supporters said that the recent fire-bomb attack seemed to justify that charge. In a display of outrage following the attack, Jewish settlers rampaged through the nearby Arab town of Qalqiliya, smashing windows, overturning cars and burning orange groves. In an attempt to calm the situation, the Israeli authorities arrested nine leading Palestinians and ordered them held without charge or trial under administrative detention orders. The Israeli army also bulldozed Arab-owned orchards lining the road on which Moses’ car was bombed, removing the cover for future attacks. Palestinian students responded to the arrests by staging a protest at Bir Zeit University, 24 km north of Jerusalem. Then, in breaking up the demonstration, Israeli troops opened fire, killing one person and wounding seven others.
Peres’s advisers said last week that the violence was a setback for his policy, but that he would not be deterred. Declared a Peres confidant: “An international conference leading to bilateral negotiations with Jordan and Palestinians not belonging to the PLO is the only road available to peace.” One factor that has spurred Peres, said the source, has been the insistence of Jordan’s King Hussein on the creation of such a forum before he would negotiate directly with Israel. “What Hussein wants,” the source said, “is international protection to enable him to talk to us openly—and we are ready to grant it.”
Observers say that Peres has also been encouraged by signs of a new openness on the part of the Soviets. Intermittent talks on restoring diplomatic relations have been going on between Israeli and Soviet officials for the past nine months in various Western capitals. Earlier this month Peres met Soviet Middle East experts in Rome. At the meeting, which Peres called “a serious dialogue,” he made it clear that increased Jewish immigration was a more significant test of Soviet intentions toward Israel than the resumption of diplomatic relations, broken off by the Kremlin after the 1967 Six Day War. A less pro-Arab
stance on the part of the Soviets would also be an Israeli condition for Soviet participation in a peace conference.
In another indication of improving relations, the Kremlin-controlled Russian Orthodox Church last week sent unprecedented Passover greetings to Israeli President Chaim Herzog. The message expressed the hope for “peace, mutual understanding and justice to triumph on the earth.”
Meanwhile, officials in Washington indicated that pressure from Jordan— a valued friend of the United States— was responsible for a softening of the
Reagan administration’s opposition to international talks that might include the Soviets. In a statement last fall, state department officials flatly opposed a conference. But last week a state department source told Maclean’s that the idea was “being considered” and was under discussion with the Israelis. But, added the source, “we feel that only states with diplomatic relations with Israel may participate, and they should all understand that the conference is serving only as a curtain-raiser for direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, with
Palestinians represented in the Jordanian team.”
In Brussels last week one Belgian government official referred to “grounds for cautious optimism” after Tindemans left on his five-day mission to Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with a visit to Israel scheduled for next month. According to sources, Tindemans decided that there were prospects for success after hearing from King Hussein earlier this month that Syria is now ready to modify its hard line and take part in a peace conference.
Hussein’s report was one of a number of indicators that led Tindemans to seek a mandate from fellow members to undertake a mission on behalf of the European Community. But the British—who broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus last fall over Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an El AÍ passenger jet from London to Tel Aviv—insisted that Tindemans should avoid Damascus.
Arab sources in Brussels said that in addition to changing his stance on
peace talks, Syrian President Hafez alAssad was now ready to punish those Syrians—allegedly members of his own military intelligence—who were implicated in the El AÍ bomb plot. If that happens, Arab sources predicted,
Damascus—a key Arab capital—would be included in the itinerary for Tindemans’s next round of talks in May.
Still, all those diplomatic manoeuvres failed to address the central problem of Palestinian representation in an international conference. The Israelis, including Peres and his Labor par-
ty, steadfastly refuse to talk to the PLO, which they call a terrorist organization. They have indicated, however, that they would be willing to allow PLO sympathizers to be part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, if they did not present themselves as representatives of the organization. And in Algiers this week the proposed conference was expected to dominate a meeting of the PLO parliament, the Palestine National Council. But because of the deep divisions within the PLO, the likelihood of the council reaching an agreed position seemed remote, Middle East analysts said. Despite this and I other potential obsta3 cles, Peres seemed determined to press on. “The process must continue,” he said. “There is not much time, and if [a conference] does not open in the next few months we are likely to miss out.”
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