JOHN BIERMAN March 25 1991


JOHN BIERMAN March 25 1991



As he toured the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was diplomacy personified. In Jerusalem, he interrupted his official schedule to place flowers on the graves of four Jewish women whom a Palestinian had stabbed to death the day before Baker’s arrival. In Damascus, he found time to visit Syria’s ancient Umayyad Mosque and mix with shoppers in a souk. With Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he was smoothly reassuring, making no effort to pressure his host on the sensitive issue of surrendering land for peace with Arab neighbors. With Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, he was unexpectedly loquacious, spinning out their talks for seven hours and apparently assuring Assad that persuading Israel to vacate occupied territory was genuinely his aim. Baker crowned his tour by declaring that he had seen “a serious desire to work for peace.” His tone differed from that of another Western visitor to the Israeli and Syrian capitals, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who said that he had found no change in attitude on either side. Still, some Middle East experts said that they detected a glimmer of


hope. Said William Quandt of Washington’s nonpartisan Brookings Institution: “I am moderately optimistic.”

While Baker was in Damascus, President George Bush flew to Ottawa to see Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the first of a series of meetings with America’s non-Arab coalition partners in the liberation of Kuwait. One topic the two leaders discussed as they surveyed the prospects for a postwar peace in the region was the chaotic situation inside Iraq, where Presi-

dent Saddam Hussein’s forces are fighting Shiite rebels in the south and Kurdish insurgents in the north. In a joint news conference with Mulroney, Bush accused Hussein of violating a previously unpublicized condition of the ceasefire by using helicopter gunships to put down those insurrections. He also cautioned Iran against “gobbling” Iraqi territory. But Bush seemed cool to Mulroney’s idea for an international conference to curb arms exports to the Middle East. And he again indicated that he would welcome Hussein’s overthrow. Declared Bush: “It is hard to see how an Iraq with him at the helm can rejoin the family of peaceloving nations.” But Bush’s central concern was clearly the Arab-Israeli dispute, which most analysts say is the core problem of the Middle East.

The dispute dates back to 1917, when Britain promised “a national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine, but without prejudice to the “civil and religious rights” of the Arab population. Between the two world wars, when Britain ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, it became increasingly clear that those two aims were irreconcilable. After

the Second World War, the United Nations drew up a partition plan that the Jews accepted but the Arabs rejected. In 1948, after Britain surrendered its Palestine mandate, five Arab armies invaded the newborn state of Israel.

The ceasefire lines of 1949 solidified into Israel’s frontiers, leaving the Gaza Strip under Egyptian control, Jerusalem divided and the West Bank annexed to Jordan. Those frontiers endured until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Gaza, Arab East Jerusalem and the Syrian-owned Golan Heights. Since then, those territories have remained under Israeli occupation—with the exception of Sinai, which Israel gradually returned to Egypt under the two countries’ historic 1979 peace treaty.

Now, in the aftermath of the Gulf War—in which Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia fought

Iraq, their common enemy with Israel—Bush and Baker insist that there is a rare opportunity to settle the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. Bush has said that any solution must be based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel’s withdrawal from territory—not “the” territory, a deliberate ambiguity—that it occupied in 1967. But the Israelis claim that they have already complied with those resolutions by returning Sinai to Egypt. They insist that, for security reasons, they must retain the Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where 1.75 million Palestinians live. And beyond strategic considerations, Israel’s ruling religious and nationalist hard-liners claim that the West

Bank—or Judea and Samaria, as they call it—is an inseparable part of the Jewish people’s birthright.

In the face of such entrenched attitudes, Washington does not yet seem ready to force the issue. “We cannot impose peace,” Baker told reporters on arrival in Jerusalem. Rather, he said, he had come “to listen, to cajole, to plead and to offer our good offices.” According to Shamir, Baker did not even raise the question of land for peace in their talks. But the Israelis clearly have no illusions. Said David Kimche, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry: “The serious work, minus the kid gloves, will begin in the next round.”

Indeed, when Baker spoke to reporters in Damascus, he appeared to reaffirm U.S. determination to secure Israel’s eventual compliance with UN resolutions 242 and 338. He agreed with the Syrians that no double standards should be applied in dealing with the ArabIsraeli conflict, a clear reference to the occupied territories and Washington’s insistence on Iraq’s obeying UN instructions to leave Kuwait. In Israel’s case, there was no suggestion of U.S. military action. But Baker stressed that “the United States will do whatever it can to use its influence and good offices with Israel to help achieve a solution.” Washington clearly has a powerful means of persuasion in the military and economic aid, currently totalling $3.5 billion a year, that it provides to Israel. Observers say that the Jewish state is more aware than ever of its vulnerability to U.S. pressure. Economists at Bank Hapaolim, Israel’s largest bank, estimate that the Gulf crisis has cost the country nearly $3 billion in Scud missile damage and heightened security measures. Israelis also face the costly challenge of absorbing hundreds of thousands of il Soviet immigrants, knowing that 2 Washington is likely to exact a 5 political price for any help.

Still, analysts say that they doubt that Bush would use the dollar weapon to pressure Israel. “Bush will never threaten to withhold funds,” said Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The only pressure we can exert is to get in there and eventually come up with offers that the Israeli government and its Arab neighbors can’t refuse.”

Although hawkish members of the Shamir government say that they refuse even to consider giving up occupied territory, the Israeli public seems to be evenly split on the issue. An opinion poll published in the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahronot (The Latest News) last week showed that 49 per cent of respondents favored trading land for peace and the same

percentage opposed it. And perhaps with that divided opinion in mind, Baker appeared to make an effort to reassure Israelis that he and Bush were as committed to the state’s survival as previous U.S. administrations.

Baker stressed that his Christian upbringing had given him a special affection for the land and the people of the Bible. And his press officers made sure of wide publicity for his unscheduled and supposedly private visit to the graves of the murdered women, whose attacker, 26-year-old Gaza Strip resident Mohammed Abu Jallah, told police that he stabbed them as “a message to Baker.” Baker’s cemetery visit was “a very clever move,” commented Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea. “The goal was to go over the government’s head and win the trust of the public.”

In fact, Baker drove straight to the cemetery from an 80-minute meeting with local Palestinian leaders. That meeting had been authorized by PLO headquarters in Tunis in what many observers said was an attempt to re-establish

its frail links with Washington. The Bush administration broke off a dialogue with the PLO last June after an attempted terrorist attack on a crowded Israeli beach. And the PLO further discredited itself in American eyes because of leader Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

In their brief to Baker last week, the Palestinian leaders reaffirmed that the PLO remained their “sole legitimate representative,” dashing hopes that a credible alternative leadership might emerge. But they stressed their readiness to live in a Palestinian state, located in the West Bank and Gaza, “alongside” rather than “in place of” Israel. For his part, Baker assured them that the U.S. dialogue with the PLO had only been “suspended.” But he warned them that neither the United States nor its Arab coalition partners were willing to deal again with Arafat. After the meeting, Faisal al-Husseini, who is widely regarded as the PLO’s chief representative in the occupied territories, told reporters that he now believed that the Ameri-

cans were “determined to do something, to go g forward, to push.” ^

Indeed, Bush announced plans last week to = make a personal visit to the Middle East soon. Said the Brookings Institution’s Quandt: “A big head of steam is going to build up around that trip. Bush will not want to come away emptyhanded.” One important outcome of Bush’s planned visit to the region, analysts say, may be a regional peace conference under joint U.S. and Soviet auspices. Such a conference could start soon, but would make little significant progress until after the U.S. presidential election and Israeli parliamentary elections in 1992. After that, some analysts predict, there could be a breakthrough—especially if the Israelis elect a government more willing than Shamir’s to risk trading the dream of a Greater Israel for the promise of peace with its neighbors.

JOHN BIERMAN with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington