WORLD

JAMES BAKER GOES CALLING

SOME ARAB STATES ACCEPT A U.S. PROPOSAL FOR A PEACE CONFERENCE WITH ISRAEL

JOHN BIERMAN July 29 1991
WORLD

JAMES BAKER GOES CALLING

SOME ARAB STATES ACCEPT A U.S. PROPOSAL FOR A PEACE CONFERENCE WITH ISRAEL

JOHN BIERMAN July 29 1991

JAMES BAKER GOES CALLING

WORLD

It was James Baker’s fifth peace mission to the Middle East since the end of the Persian Gulf War last February, and at last there was a glimmer of hope that his efforts might bear fruit. After three hours of talks with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus last Thursday, the U.S. secretary of state declared that Assad had taken “an extraordinarily positive step” towards peace with Israel. The Syrian strongman did seem to have modified his traditional rejectionist policy by accepting U.S. compromise proposals for the convening of a regional Arab-Israeli peace conference. Later, in Cairo, Baker received similar assurances of support from Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez. Those developments clearly put the Israelis on the diplomatic defensive. Some analysts speculated that Israel’s leaders might withdraw their earlier rejection of the U.S. proposals now that the Syrians and Lebanese had accepted them. But as Baker continued his round of Middle East capitals, ending in Jerusalem on Sunday, the signs were not good. Said Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Arens in a newspaper interview: “I don’t think Baker will leave here with an agreement.” Indeed, throughout the week, the Israelis continued expanding the West Bank settlements that Baker had recently characterized as the biggest single obstacle to peace in the region. At one location just outside Jerusalem, 30 university student volunteers from North America—six of them Canadian—labored in 40° C (104° F) desert heat to help build housing for recent Jewish arrivals from the Soviet Union. “It is unfortunate that some people have problems with what we are doing,” said 19-year-old Montrealer Joshua Joseph, a student of diplomatic history at Pennsylvania State University, “but we just came to build houses for Russian immigrants, not to make a political statement.”

Earlier in the week, the Group of Seven leading industrial countries, meeting in London, supported Washington’s position on the settlement question (page 24). In a policy statement, the seven leaders, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, called on Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to stop construction of the settlements. At the same time, the G-7 leaders called on the Arab

SOME ARAB STATES ACCEPT A U.S. PROPOSAL FOR A PEACE CONFERENCE WITH ISRAEL

states to lift their economic boycott campaign against Israel. In Alexandria, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the leader of the only Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, said that such reciprocal steps would help the U.S.-led search for peace in the Middle East.

Both sides swiftly rejected the calls. But it was clear that by endorsing peace talks, the Syrians had gained a diplomatic advantage. After six weeks of deliberation, Syria’s Assad, who had previously insisted on full UN participation in the conference, agreed that the United Nations should only send a silent observer, someone who would not be allowed to make a speech or otherwise participate directly. Assad also agreed that after a ceremonial opening, leading to direct talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the conference would reconvene only if all parties agreed.

Those concessions were designed to meet Israel’s objections to a UN presence and to a conference that could be reconvened at any point, thereby interfering with the direct negotiations with its neighbors that Jerusalem insists upon. But Israeli officials continued to insist, up to late last week, that any UN role at all was unacceptable in view of the world body’s allegedly hostile attitude towards the Jewish state. They also stood by their position that the conference, to be held under joint U.S.-Soviet auspices, should be a one-day ceremonial affair that would then break up into separate face-toface talks and not be reconvened.

And other obstacles loom ahead. Late last week, Shamir reiterated his opposition to the inclusion at the conference table of Palestinians

from East Jerusalem. “We will not negotiate about Jerusalem and therefore we will not talk with any Arabs living in East Jerusalem,” Shamir told reporters after a speech to fund raisers from abroad. Shamir’s adamant refusal to allow the future of divided Jerusalem to be discussed at all runs counter to the agreement between Assad and Baker, which calls for the peace negotiations to be based on UN resolu-

tions that envisage an Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967.

But despite the tough talk from Israel, some Middle East experts in Washington were cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the Baker mission. “It is going to be difficult for Shamir to hold out,” said William Quandt, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. Quandt added that President Bush “has some persuasive means to get him to come. He could simply convene a conference and say, T dare you not to come.’ ”

For one thing, Israel sorely needs American financial help in dealing with its growing immigration problems. About 300,000 Soviet immigrants have arrived in Israel in the past 18 months, with another 70,000 expected by the end of the year. And in September, the U.S. Congress is expected to consider an Israeli request for an unprecedented $11 billion in loan guarantees to provide housing and jobs for the newcomers. Israel currently receives a minimum of $3.5 billion in annual aid from Washington. Plainly, Shamir is concerned that Bush and Baker might make continued American financial assistance conditional on Israeli willingness to attend a peace conference. On the other hand, many analysts speculate that Bush, who faces re-election in November, 1992, will not risk alienating American Jews before then.

Meanwhile, Israel’s ultra-nationalist housing minister, Ariel Sharon, was overseeing the construction of accommodations for 50,000

new settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, increasing the Jewish population there by 50 per cent. Most of the laborers on the building sites are Palestinians who can find no other work. But in some locations, they are toiling side by side with young Jewish volunteers from overseas. That was the situation last week at Ma’aleh Adumim, an expanding settlement in the Judean desert about eight kilometres east of Jerusalem, where Joshua Joseph and his fellow students were working. “As a Jew, I feel a special bond with Israel,” said Mark Guralnick, a 20-year-old McGill University architecture major. “The arrival of all the new immigrants is incredibly exciting, incredibly inspiring.”

Clearly, Guralnick and the other student volunteers do not consider the Israeli settlement policy to be an obstacle to peace. But seven members of their original group apparently took a different position. They left when they learned that their work would be carried out beyond the so-called green line—the pre1967 border between Israel and what was then the Jordanian-ruled West Bank. Said one of those volunteers who dropped out of the scheme, 27-year-old law student Peter Lee from California: “I didn’t want to be part of anything that might go against the peace process.”

ERIC SILVER

MARCI McDONALD

JOHN BIERMAN with ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem and MARCI McDONALD in Washington