AFTER MORE THAN FOUR DECADES OF HOSTILITIES, ARABS AND ISRAELIS ARE SITTING DOWN TO DISCUSS PEACE
DAYS OF RECKONING
AFTER MORE THAN FOUR DECADES OF HOSTILITIES, ARABS AND ISRAELIS ARE SITTING DOWN TO DISCUSS PEACE
After his castle in Madrid burned to the ground on Christmas night in 1734, Spain’s King Philip V spent the rest of his life building an immense 500-room palace made of granite and limestone. Known as the Royal Palace, its priceless frescos and collection of armor make it a monument to the opulence and conquests of the old Spanish monarchy. This week, it assumes a new historical significance. For the first time ever, mutually suspicious Israeli and Arab delegations will sit down, beneath crystal chandeliers, to explore the prospects for ending 43 years of war and violent recrimination in the Middle East. With each side vowing not to yield to the other, the likelihood of a quick peace agreement seems remote. However, said U.S. Secretary of State James Baker last week, “For the most part, the people involved really want to see this process move forward.”
But on the eve of the scheduled opening of the U.S.-Soviet-sponsored Middle East peace conference on Oct. 30, which President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev planned to attend, there was no
evidence that Baker’s guarded optimism was shared by any of the 14-member delegations representing Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and nearly two million Palestinians. The Arabs continue to insist that they will not make peace until Israel returns the lands it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War: the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River. For their part, the Israelis have said repeatedly that they will not discuss land until the Arabs recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist peacefully—and perhaps not even then. Privately, spokesmen for both sides have said that the only reason they agreed to the conference at all was to placate Washington, which has pushed aggressively for a reconciliation since the end of the Persian Gulf War last February.
In fact, the relationship between the longtime enemies became more acrimonious as the
conference drew nearer. Because Israel refuses to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization, Baker obtained assurances from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat that none of the Palestinians chosen to attend the conference is a PLO member. Then, on Oct. 23, Palestinian delegate Saeb Erakat, a 36-year-old lecturer at the West Bank’s An-Najah University, told a U.S. television interviewer that his group had been chosen by the PLO.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reacted by saying that Israel would walk away from the conference rather than negotiate with PLO representatives. That uproar led Faisal al-Husseini, the 51year-old leader of a Palestinian advisory panel travelling to Madrid with the official delegation, to declare that only he or his chief spokesman was empowered to comment officially on behalf of the group. In Cairo, Arafat said that although the PLO had not been able to obtain a seat at the table, it would work closely with the Palestinians who had done so.
While the two sides sniped at each other, the Spanish government prepared to deploy 12,000 police and paramilitary civil guards at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, along major streets, at hotels and around the Royal Palace. Police sealed the palace’s labyrinth of
underground tunnels, once used by Spanish kings for secret nighttime outings in pursuit of women or the comradeship of a city tavern. Each delegation will take its own bodyguards, but U.S. and Soviet agents will be jointly responsible for security inside the palace.
Widespread, and even violent, opposition to the conference likely contributed to the scale of the precautions. Libya, long regarded by the West as a haven for Islamic extremists, has denounced the peace process. In Tehran, the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati as saying that the only solution to the Palestinian issue was the elimination of Israel. The pro-Iranian Hizbollah, a Shiite Moslem guerrilla organization in Lebanon, killed three Israeli soldiers last week in a bombing attack that it linked to the peace talks. And Iran’s Jomhuri Islami newspaper issued a veiled threat of terrorist attacks against Spain for hosting the conference.
In Israel’s occupied territories, three radical Palestinian groups demanded a general protest strike to coincide with the conference’s opening. And Ahmed Jibril, leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, said that the Palestinian delegates to the talks had condemned themselves to death. Said Jibril: “Our people will judge them and will not forgive them.” By contrast, the peace talks drew the support of the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries that stopped financing PLO operations against Israel when Arafat declared his support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition.
But there was opposition to the Madrid conference in Israel, as well. By placing himself last week at the head of an Israeli delegation dominated by hard-liners, the 76-year-old Shamir aggravated his own political problems.
Already under fire from three small right-wing parties in his restive coalition government for agreeing to peace talks, Shamir alienated the moderates by excluding Foreign Minister David Levy from the Israeli team. In his speeches, Levy has emphasized the potential gains, rather than the risks, of peace negotiations. Although Levy remained silent, aides said that he may soon challenge Shamir for the Likud party leadership. At week’s end, Shamir tried to strike a positive note, telling an interviewer in Jerusalem that Israel, while trying to push its own views at the conference, would also be prepared to listen.
The conference agenda calls for an opening round of statements by Bush, Gorbachev and the heads of the Israeli and Arab delegations. Then, the plan calls for the Israelis to hold direct but separate peace talks with the Lebanese and Syrian delegations, as well as with the joint Jordanian-Palestinian team. The third
phase of the discussions is scheduled to begin on Nov. 13, when all the Arab states are supposed to join together in talks with the Israelis on issues that include arms control, the environment and water supplies. However, the Syrians have said that they will not join that multilateral phase unless Israel agrees to withdraw from the occupied territories—which Shamir refuses to do—and they are trying to persuade the other Arab states to boycott those meetings as well.
The foreign ministers of the Arab nations met in Damascus on Oct. 23 and 24 and agreed to take a common stand towards Israel at the peace conference. In a statement read to reporters after their session, the ministers said that their main aim was “to ensure Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territory, including Jerusalem, to halt Israeli settlements immediately and to ensure the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people.” The United States has been urging Israel to adopt a peace formula that would incorporate land for peace.
Yet within those broad goals, the Arab delegations all have slightly differing priorities. Middle East observers said that the Jordanians and Palestinians will try to negotiate the broadest possible autonomy for the Palestinians as an intermediary step towards persuading Israel to relinquish the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ultimate goal would be either a Palestinian state or a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. About 1.8 million Arabs live under military government in the occupied territories.
The Jordanians and Palestinians will also dispute the Israeli position that the status of Jerusalem is not negotiable. They will fight, observers say, for a measure of Arab sovereignty in the eastern part of the city, governed by Jordan until 1967 and annexed by Israel a month after the Six Day War that same year. Jerusalem has a population of about 500,000, of whom two-thirds are Jews and one-third Arabs.
The Palestinian delegation will also seek a so-called right of return for the Palestinians uprooted by the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, or at least some form of compensation, although that long-standing demand seems to be less central to their immediate agenda. Jordan annexed the West Bank and ruled it as part of the Hashemite kingdom from 1949 to 1967. Egypt ruled Gaza from 1948 to 1967, but did not annex it.
The most immediate aim of the Syrians is to recover the Golan Heights, which then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government annexed in 1981. So far, Syria has said
that it will not take part in the multilateral negotiations on regional problems unless the Golan Heights are returned. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad apparently hopes that tactic will mobilize U.S. pressure on Israel. Middle East analysts say that Syria appears to be offering Israel a relationship of non-belligerence rather than a peace treaty.
Lebanon, a junior partner in the proceedings, would like to see Israeli troops withdrawn from the 10-km-deep security zone in the south of the country, which would allow Lebanese President Elias Harawi to extend his authority
to the international border. Israel has said that it will not withdraw until Syria removes its 40,000 troops from Lebanon. But now, analysts say, Israel might be willing to trade a pullout for a Syrian withdrawal from the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon.
Egypt, which in 1979 became the only Arab state to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, wants the Jewish state to fulfil its Camp David agreements by making a greater effort to help the Palestinians. One of those agreements, facilitated by then-President Jimmy Carter, proposed negotiations for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel says that it wants peace treaties with all of its neighbors. But Shamir’s right-wing coalition has steadfastly argued that peace is possible without sacrificing what it regards as historical Jewish rights. It insists on a permanent right of Jewish settlement in all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israel maintains that by returning the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in 1979, it fulfilled its obligations under the UN Security Council resolution requiring it to withdraw from land it occupied. That resolution, Israelis say, referred generally to “territories,” not “all terri-
tories.” Neither the Arab nations nor the United States has ever accepted Israel’s interpretation. However, members of Shamir’s Likud party have suggested that Israel might be willing to give the Golan Heights back to Syria because they do not consider it religiously important. Ironically, there is less support for that concession among more moderate Labour politicians, who consider the Golan essential to the defence of the Galilee.
Middle East experts say that the participants in the Madrid conference were persuaded to attend by objectives that have little to do
with peace. They add that many Israelis are disturbed by the Bush administration’s apparent lack of commitment to the Jewish state at a time when it is more dependent than ever on American aid for the absorption of hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Ethiopian refugees. And Israel appears to have agreed to attend the conference partly to fend off a further erosion of American support. Syria, no longer able to call on the financially troubled Soviet Union for arms, is trying to capitalize on its participation in the U.S.-led war with Iraq. And the Jordanians and the PLO are anxious to have Washington forget that they backed Saddam Hussein. As for James Baker, the architect of this week’s drama in Madrid, it was a time for caution in a historically chaotic region. Said Baker: “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with the Middle East.” As Arab and Israeli enemies prepared to sit down for their first face-to-face negotiations, a hopeful world was not likely to do so.
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