Speaking of the Middle East . . .

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The United States and the Soviet Union are planning to confer on the Middle East, but, President Reagan’s national-security adviser says, they will only be talking, not negotiating. The main aim of the get-together, according to Robert C. McFarlane, is to allow the two countries to exchange views and define their interests and concerns in the region. Left unaffected, McFarlane emphasizes, will be the basic American position that the most promising route to peace lies in direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states on its borders.

There’s obviously a lot to be said for talks that, free from the propaganda of the public arena, could help clarify national aims and lessen the chances of possibly dangerous miscalculations. As the record shows, even proposing Middle East discussions involving the superpowers can have a salutary effect.

That’s what happened in late 1977, when U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko decided that it would be a good idea to revive the multiparty “Geneva peace conference” on the Middle East that had met for just one session at the end of 1973 before going into indefinite recess. This unexpected proposal had an unanticipated early consequence. As the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt subsequently told many people, it was the possibility--or, as he saw it, the threat--of such a grand gathering with the Soviet Union in a major role that helped decide him on the wisdom of an early trip to Jerusalem. Out of that initiative eventually came the most important positive development in the Middle East in 30 years.


Sadat, who had had a lot of direct experience with the Russians, didn’t think much of the idea that they should be accorded a heavy involvement in any Middle East peace process. The Soviet Union’s influence in the region depends, after all, on the military aid and political support that it gives to Arab countries that resist acceptance of or peace with Israel. It is not likely that the Russians would commit themselves to replacing tension with peace if that would inevitably result in a diminution of their influence in the area.

The idea that a large conference involving all parties to the conflict offers the best forum for negotiating peace is similarly unrealistic. It is as obvious now as it was in 1977 that Arab leaders are at loggerheads over basic political questions affecting their region, including the question of acceptance of Israel. King Hussein of Jordan has lately taken to calling again for such a multiparty conference. But, as Hussein well knows, the suspicions and hostilities that divide the Arabs assure that at best such a meeting would lead to deadlock and increased frustration. At worst it could allow the radical Arab leaders to bully and blackmail their more moderate colleagues into supporting their intransigent line.

By all means let Washington and Moscow exchange views about the Middle East, so long as it is understood, as McFarlane has made clear, that these discussions are no substitute for the real thing. If Israel and its Arab neighbors make peace, it will be only after they have negotiated directly the terms of agreement. There may of course be a facilitating role for others to play, as there was in the case of the Egypt-Israel peace. But the will to act and the decisions to be made can originate only within the Middle East itself.