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Threat of U.S. Condemnation Is Main Spur for Middle East Peace Talks : Diplomacy: Both Israeli and Arab responses are seen as purely tactical.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the Middle East, the prevailing question seems to be: “What will Uncle Sam do if we don’t go?”

As the benefits of potential Middle East peace talks are weighed throughout the region, it is becoming clear that the decisions rest not so much on the potential gains from talks with each other as they do on the cost--in relations with Washington--of staying away.

This overriding negative impulse helps explain the low level of open enthusiasm among Mideast officials for the Bush proposals and, here west of the Jordan River, the shrugs from both the Israeli and Palestinian public. No one seems thrilled.

In Israel, as well as in the Arab world, moves toward peace are described as purely tactical, a jockeying for position, rather than in terms of a profound change of heart. And the two leading tacticians, Syria’s Hafez Assad and Israel’s Yitzhak Shamir, are especially reluctant to describe their own moves as revolutionary, not to mention the moves of each other.

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At one point last week, Shamir tried to enliven the atmosphere by comparing Assad to Egypt’s late President Anwar Sadat, whose dramatic offer to visit Jerusalem in 1977 electrified Israelis and overcame decades of suspicion. Shamir’s comparison didn’t wash in Israel, and not just because, in the eyes of many, Assad does not live up to the parallel. Commentators also measured Shamir against Menachem Begin, the prime minister who made peace with Sadat, and found Shamir falling short.

“While Sadat and Begin immediately gained the trust of both the people and international community, Assad and Shamir arouse suspicions,” wrote Rubick Rosenthal in the liberal newspaper Al Hamishmar. “The general feeling is that small tactics are leading both . . . to seek short-range achievements in their relations with the United States. They are not seeking by their moves to create a historic breakthrough.”

Aryeh Naor, a political scientist and Cabinet secretary for Begin, declared: “There is no way to compare Sadat and Begin with Assad and Shamir. Sadat and Begin declared clearly what the talks were about before going to them. Assad and Shamir mainly are interested in what the talks are not about.”

Jordanian officials and leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization hardly provoke more excitement. Both are occupied with regaining a measure of international respectability after having favored Iraq during the Gulf War. If they come to the table, it will be in full realization that they are weak and defeated parties, not innovators. Observers generally view Lebanon, which has agreed to come, as an appendage of Syria, whose troops occupy half the country and ensure the current stability of its government.

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But the main pair on stage are Assad and Shamir, two blood enemies who have shown little taste for compromise in their long careers.

Assad’s agreement to attend talks revived Bush’s conference plans after four frustrating months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Ever since the decision, Assad and his spokesmen have been busy implying that once Syria is seated at the table, it will recover the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Middle East War.

Yet, the term “peace treaty” never appears in Syrian statements, Israeli officials and observers are quick to point out, but rather words indicating only an end to belligerency.

“Sadat’s declared willingness for peace created an irreversible process,” wrote Rosenthal in Al Hamishmar. “Assad’s announcement . . . has created a sense of alleviation, but not joy.”

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Arab analysts contend that Assad’s motives center on self-preservation, not peace with Israel. “Assad reads the world balance of power,” asserted Mahdi Abdel-Hadi, a Palestinian political analyst. “And it doesn’t necessarily favor him.”

The Gulf War was a double-edged event for Assad. On the one hand, he joined the winning side and gained $2 billion in economic and military support from oil-rich Arab states. The money goes a long way toward replacing the lost generosity of the Soviet Union, which has cut back sharply on international commitments.

On the other hand, Saddam Hussein’s defeat showed Assad the potential price of defying the United States. “Everyone forgets that not long ago, Assad was the chief Middle East villain, not Saddam,” said a Palestinian activist. “Unlike Saddam, Assad knows enough to go with the tide. And the tide is with the Americans.”

Shamir faces a problem of rejuvenating Israel’s traditionally warm relations with Washington. Rejecting talks could botch that all-important strategy. “Shamir has always been one to stick to his guns but not take things too far,” remarked Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

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Staying away from talks could lead to a fight with the Bush Administration over new and increased military and economic aid. Just as for Assad, there is no alternative. Europe has taken a role more sympathetic to the Arab world than has Washington.

Still, Shamir has added enough conditions to Palestinian participation in peace talks to make the success of Bush’s effort far from sure. Among other things, he has demanded that the Palestinians, during the opening session of the conference, be allowed to speak only through the Jordanians.

Such procedural snags have kept Israel from endorsing the conference, despite numerous winks and expressions that, “in principle,” Israel will attend.

Behind the procedural roadblocks are issues of substance. Is Israel prepared to give up land if it can get peace treaties in return?

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Egypt has greeted visiting Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy with demands that Israel trade land for peace. “Keeping land intact and (getting) peace is something which is not possible,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa said Tuesday. “We hope there will be flexibility, and that is the reason for these currently long talks. Let us be optimistic on this issue.”

Levy refused to budge on any issue, either of procedure or substance. “There are things Israel has done. There are things Israel will not do,” he said flatly.

Such tough talk has led skeptics to believe that Shamir, who fears losing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in negotiations, is secretly wishing that the PLO would veto talks, forcing Jordan to withdraw and finally throwing Syria’s involvement into question. The domino theory would permit Shamir to blame someone else for the debacle. (Even Syria might favor that tactic, since Assad’s goal is also not to be blamed, analysts say.)

“I don’t give the talks more than a 50-50 chance of taking place,” Avineri said. “As long as everyone can point a finger at someone else, it is possible for everything to fall apart.”

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In any event, can talks begun with an eye on Washington end with peace in the Middle East? Surprisingly, even the skeptics think it’s possible.

Harking back to the Sadat comparison, Avineri said that the two leaders have one point in common: Both Sadat and now Assad decided to throw in their lot with Washington. “Much came out of that decision before, and lots can come out now,” he said.

Palestinian analyst Abdel-Hadi theorized that talks, even if stimulated by a need to please Washington, could benefit everyone. “No one realizes that this is history because everyone is talking about side issues,” he concluded.


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