WORLD

A SEARCH FOR LASTING PEACE

THE TROOPS BEGAN COMING HOME AND PRESIDENT BUSH VOWED TO SEEK AN END TO ARABISRAELI CONFLICT

JOHN BIERMAN March 18 1991
WORLD

A SEARCH FOR LASTING PEACE

THE TROOPS BEGAN COMING HOME AND PRESIDENT BUSH VOWED TO SEEK AN END TO ARABISRAELI CONFLICT

JOHN BIERMAN March 18 1991

A SEARCH FOR LASTING PEACE

WORLD

THE TROOPS BEGAN COMING HOME AND PRESIDENT BUSH VOWED TO SEEK AN END TO ARABISRAELI CONFLICT

The bands, the salutes, the flags and the emotions released by reunions across the United States marked the real end of the Persian Gulf War last week as the first troops began arriving on their native soil after months in the desert. With the defeat of Saddam Hussein behind him, President George Bush turned to confront the central problem of the Middle East. “The time has come,” he told a joint meeting of Congress last Wednesday night, “to put an end to Arab-Israel conflict.” Bush’s Gulf War triumph had created an unusual opportunity. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia separately signalled at least a willingness on the weekend to participate in a regional peacemaking process. The Israelis obviously were feeling more secure after the U.S.-led coalition shredded Hussein’s military might— and after their archenemy, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, generated widespread condemnation for supporting Iraq. And the Israelis’ restraint in the face of Baghdad’s 19 Scud missile attacks had earned them world acclaim. Still, there was no sign that the government in Jerusalem was willing to recognize what Bush had urged them to— “legitimate Palestinian political rights”—or trade territory for peace. And Secretary of State James Baker clearly had a delicate task as he continued a 10-day tour in the region and to the Soviet Union.

Along with the Palestinian question, Baker raised three other key topics with the Arab members of the victorious anti-Iraq coalition. Those were the establishment of an Arab peacekeeping force in the Gulf, steps to prevent a new buildup of nonconventional weapons of mass destruction—including nuclear and chemical arms—and regional co-operation for the economic benefit of the poorer Arab countries. Four other Western foreign ministers were also touring the region, with similar issues in mind. Among them was Canada’s Joe Clark, who stirred up controversy in both Israel and Canada when he appeared to differ with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney over the role of the PLO.

First in Amman and again in Jerusalem,

Clark characterized the PLO as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people in any ArabIsraeli peace process. But in the House of Commons last Thursday, Mulroney said that the PLO had been “substantially, if not completely, discredited” by its support for Saddam Hussein. He added: “Our enthusiasm for the present leadership is zero.” Clark and Mulroney quickly denied any policy differences.

And one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office explained that “the Prime Minister has a more rhetorical way of speaking, while Clark is more cautious.” Both men, he added, agree that it is up to the Palestinians to decide who will represent them.

Although the question of the PLO’s status as a potential negotiating partner was clearly crucial, the more immediate issue was Bush’s call for Israel to comply with UN Resolutions 242 and 338. Those resolutions demand Israel’s withdrawal from territories that it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy quickly rejected a pullout. “We disagree here,” he said. And Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared: “We are not inclined to make some concessions that would satisfy our neighbors and not give us our full security.”

Israel has long insisted that control of the occupied territories, with their rebellious 1.75-millionstrong Palestinian population, is a necessary safeguard against attack. As well, members of Israel’s nationalist and religious

right wing insist that the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as they call it, is an integral part of Israel. Still, Shamir obviously hoped to ease the atmosphere for Baker’s visit by playing up the parts of Bush’s speech of which his government approved: Bush’s failure to mention Arafat or the PLO, and his emphasis on arms control and regional co-operation. Before Baker’s arrival in Israel, Yossi Achimeir, director of Shamir’s office, raised the possibility of “a regional peace conference” involving Israel and one or more Arab states. Meanwhile in Riyadh, after Baker’s two-hour meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, a senior U.S. official said that the Saudis were prepared to be “active” in an Arab-Israeli peacemaking process.

In Jerusalem, Levy warned his cabinet colleagues that it would not be enough for them “to put on our helmets and take shelter in our bunkers.” Instead, he urged, they should take the diplomatic offensive and present a peace plan of their own. And the outlines of that plan began to take shape last Friday when Achimeir disclosed that the government was studying a proposal for a regional conference between Israel and a delegation of Arab states. “If you have not solved relations between Israel and the Arab states,” said Achimeir, “you have done nothing about the Palestinian problem.”

Many analysts said that Shamir’s first diplomatic move may well be with Syria, which has won a measure of international respectability by fighting with the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. But any treaty between Damascus and

Jerusalem would clearly have to include the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1981. And Shamir has repeatedly told Jewish settlers on the Heights that they will never have to leave.

The tentative Israeli proposal for a regional peace conference appeared to represent a measure of new thinking in Israel. But with it came some old thinking: the revival of Shamir’s 1989 proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza, to be followed by limited local autonomy. Later, Shamir himself effectively sidetracked that plan after ultra-rightist members of his governing coalition had vigorously opposed it on the grounds that it would weaken Israel’s hold over the territories. And the same faction, led by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, indicated last week that it would fight it again. In fact, according to a plan that two left-wing MPs leaked to the media, Sharon’s ministry intends to build 24,000 homes, accommodating 88,000 Jewish settlers, in the West Bank this year—almost doubling the existing Jewish settler population of 90,000. The U.S. administration has frequently described such settlements as an obstacle to peace. Even in the changed climate of the post-Gulf War era, the American initiatives seemed certain to run headlong into a host of old and intractable animosities.

JOHN BIERMAN with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa

JOHN BIERMAN

ERIC SILVER

WILLIAM LOWTHER

E. KAYE FULTON