WORLD

THE GREAT DIVIDE

ISRAELIS AND ARABS MEET IN A HISTORIC ATTEMPT TO END 43 YEARS OF CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 11 1991
WORLD

THE GREAT DIVIDE

ISRAELIS AND ARABS MEET IN A HISTORIC ATTEMPT TO END 43 YEARS OF CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 11 1991

THE GREAT DIVIDE

WORLD

ISRAELIS AND ARABS MEET IN A HISTORIC ATTEMPT TO END 43 YEARS OF CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Yoash Zidon launched his own personal peace initiative last Thursday. Zidon, an adviser to the Israeli delegation at the Middle East peace talks that opened in Madrid the day before, walked 30 paces from his government’s office in the conference media centre to the Palestinian office and introduced himself to Albert Aghazarian. The Israeli and the Palestinian clasped hands and made nervous small talk, each acutely aware of the symbolism of the moment. “Let’s go back home and start talking,” urged Zidon. “I want to eat hummus in your place, and you eat hummus in my place.” Replied Aghazarian with a smile: “Well, I will eat maybe gefilte fish in your place.” The two men traded a few more jokes—as well as some barbed remarks that underlined the gulf still dividing them—and then parted. “So we shook hands,” Zidon said as he squeezed out of Aghazarian’s office. “Maybe it’s a start.”

The peace conference itself, which brought Israel and its Arab neighbors together for the

first time after 43 years of conflict, had a similarly tentative quality. For three days, representatives of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians made history simply by sitting around a T-shaped conference table in the ornate Hall of Columns of Madrid’s Royal Palace. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his team sat directly across from

the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, separated only by the 13-foot width of the linencovered table. President George Bush, who opened the conference, called it a historic gathering, but added: “We do not expect peace to be negotiated in a day, or a week, or a month or even a year.”

The conference delegates quickly justified Bush’s caution. They did not talk directly to one another, and their belligerent speeches served only to mark their bargaining positions. On Friday, when they ended the meeting’s first phase, they were abusing each other in harsh language. Shamir denounced Syria’s government as “one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world.” Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk al-Shara, responded by holding up a wanted poster of Shamir from the late 1940s when the Israeli leader was a member of a Jewish underground group fighting for Israel's independence and participated in the assassination of a UN envoy. “He himself recognized that he was a terrorist,” thundered Shara. “He killed peace mediators.” The atmosphere was so charged with mistrust that Arabs and Israelis could not even agree by meeting’s end on when and where to begin private, face-to-face talks on substantive issues.

All along, Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who personally organized the conference during eight trips to the Middle East, had emphasized that only direct talks could make progress towards peace. Adjourning the conference’s main session, a visibly annoyed Baker said: “This has been a start, but it is only a start. You must not let this start become an end.” The participants eventually agreed to keep talking in Madrid. But that first face-to-face session, scheduled for Nov. 3, was to deal only with the timing and location of future talks. Only when, and if, those talks begin will it be possible to assess how serious the parties are about peace. “So far, it has been a big carnival, a big media battle,” Radwan Abu Ayyash, a Palestinian adviser, said bluntly. “The real world starts when you close the doors and talk directly.”

Meanwhile, the real world of Middle East strife underscored the delegates’ difficulties. On Tuesday, before the talks even started, Moslem guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and wounded six others in two ambushes in south Lebanon, and Israeli warplanes later retaliated with air strikes against guerrilla targets there. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, radical Palestinians called a general strike to protest the Madrid conference, battling rival moderate groups with knives and stones.

Against such a backdrop, organizers of the Madrid conference had attempted to avoid anything that might strike a note of confrontation—even removing from the Hall of Columns

a statue showing the 16th-century Spanish ruler Charles v slaying a demon, and replacing it with a figure representing justice. “Better symbolism,” explained a Spanish organizer. But when the Israeli and Arab delegates found themselves in the hall together for the first time on Wednesday morning, their encounter was painfully strained. Among the Arab leaders, only Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, whose country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, shook hands with the Israelis. The others avoided any contact during the half-hour before the session, their eyes only occasionally flickering towards their longtime enemies. The next day, all delegations carefully scheduled their arrivals to cut the waiting time. Not surprisingly, U.S. officials took pains not to raise expectations. After the first session, Baker warned: “We have to crawl before we walk, and we have to walk before we run. Today, I think we all began to crawl.”

Before the meeting began, Baker had argued that simply getting the long-standing enemies together provided a chance to overcome old myths and prejudices. And on the fringes of the conference, there were some tentative signs of that. Bruce Kashdan, a member of the Israeli advance team, recalled that he needed a screwdriver to set up some equipment in his temporary office. “I went to the Lebanese and borrowed one,” said Kashdan. “It was perfectly normal.” Israeli journalists also set about interviewing Jordanian and Lebanese officials, while the Israelis organized briefings for Arab reporters. However, other attempts to break the ice were less successful. Despite Israeli adviser Zidon’s successful visit to the Palestinian office, a similar gesture towards Syrian representatives backfired. When he walked into their office, followed by a crush of reporters, Syrian delegates rushed into an adjoining room to avoid him. “This is how they invade other people’s territory,” shouted one Syrian as Zidon retreated.

Part of the problem was that all delegations were also addressing their domestic audiences. Extreme right-wing groups in Israel, on which Shamir depends to keep his coalition in power, have voiced fears that the peace process might undermine Israel’s security. As a result, Shamir dwelt on the long history of Jewish persecution, saying nothing that would compromise Israel’s grip on the occupied territories. Arab leaders, too, had domestic concerns. In Tehran early in the week, militant groups that reject Israel’s very right to exist proclaimed that anyone attending the Madrid meetings was committing a sin against Islam. “We all have our extremists,” said an adviser to an Arab team. “We can only hope that when we get into face-to-face talks, we can be more realistic.”

At week’s end, Israel was pressing hard to move those talks to the Middle East, with meetings alternating in Arab countries and Israel itself. “You meet in his house, he meets in yours,” explained Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s deputy foreign minister. But Arab states, especially Syria, reject such meetings because the presence of their representatives in Israel would extend tacit recognition to the Jewish state, which they are unwilling to give. And Palestinian delegates insist that they cannot negotiate anywhere under Israeli jurisdiction. Said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, the Palestinians' main spokesman:

“Our phones are tapped, we cannot move freely, we are subject to arrest. We need a neutral and free place to negotiate.”

If the participants do finally talk directly about their differences, the agenda will be long and complicated. Syria’s main sticking point is Israel’s occupation since 1967 of the Golan Heights, which dominate the Jordan Valley and northern Israel. Aside from strategic value, the Golan is vital to both countries as a source of scarce water; fully a quarter of Israel’s water originates in the area. Said Dori Gold, an adviser to the Israeli delegation: “The notion that we would put the sources of the Jordan River back into Syrian hands is something Israelis will be very reluctant to consider.”

Most intractable will be future talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians last week used the peace-conference podium to make their maximum demand: that Israel should allow the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, their representatives have a long list of more modest bargaining points aimed at easing the conditions of Israeli military rule. They include gradual transfer to Palestinian authority of such things as schools, universities and munici-

pal services as part of a transitional period to eventual statehood. The Palestinians, along with the other Arab delegations, are also certain to demand a halt to Jewish settlements in the occupied territories—something that Shamir flatly rules out. The Israelis, in turn, would likely include among their early demands a halt to the Palestinian intifadeh, or uprising.

Such an agenda points to months, if not years, of protracted negotiations—unless the peace process falls apart entirely. “Maybe it will take a few weeks for everyone to shake

hands, and a few months to really start talking,” reflected Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian delegate who symbolically draped his Arab kaffiyeh scarf over the shoulders of his business suit during the entire conference. “But if we have learned anything over the years, we have learned patience.” In that, if in nothing else, Erakat could equally well have been speaking for the Israelis he faced for the first time last week across a peace table.

ANDREW PHILLIPS