Briefing Paper : Finding Possibilities for Mideast Peace


The Issue

The nays are loud and the yeas almost whispered, but the Middle East is creeping toward peace talks at the invitation of the United States and Soviet Union.

Israel’s Yitzhak Shamir signed up last week. Syria’s Hafez Assad, long a holdout in any peace moves, assented last month. Jordan’s King Hussein is on board, even if by his own account, he is not sure how his delegation will be organized. Lebanon, increasingly dominated by Syria, will come. Egypt, which already has a peace treaty with Israel, is glad for the prospect of Arab company.

Only the Palestinians are holding out, but it appears that they have nowhere else to go. It would not be the first time a Middle East peace conference was held without them.


The key to success so far--and it is still a tenuous accomplishment, with plenty of time for things to go wrong before the hoped-for October conference opening--has been to avoid talking about what each party really wants.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who has undergone a grueling round of shuttle diplomacy just to win reluctant agreements in principle, tenaciously avoided setting an agenda for the talks. Only the framework has been set: an opening conference with all the countries involved sitting at a table and the United States, Soviet Union, a European representative and a United Nations observer on hand, followed by individual meetings between Israel and each of its neighbors.

In essence, the proposed conference is meant, finally, to set the borders of Israel and to have them accepted by Arab states--all against a historic background of warfare, religious animosity, wounded pride and human trauma.

For now, each side is exhibiting what author Conor Cruise O’Brien once called “the appearance of obstinacy.” Nothing seems available for compromise.

The question to be answered between now and October--and then beyond--is whether appearance is fact.

Here is a rundown on where, publicly, each of the main participants in the proposed peace talks stands and on areas where compromise might burst through:

Israel and ‘Land for Peace’

The Shamir government is officially committed to keeping the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip under its control, effectively extending the country’s borders from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Shamir has also vowed not to surrender the Golan Heights, which Israel has formally annexed. All three areas were captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War.

Holding on to the West Bank and Gaza has presented Israel with a practical and moral problem: how to keep a restive people, ruled without their consent, quiet. Its proffered answer is autonomy, under which the 1.7 million Palestinians in the occupied territories would handle limited affairs of culture and local administration while defense, resources and land would be in Israel’s control. (The Golan Heights presents less of a human dilemma; the Druze population inherited from Syria is small and submissive.)

To make autonomy permanent, rather than a step toward Palestinian independence, Shamir would offer the Palestinians a national political home in neighboring Jordan--making them, effectively, citizens of Jordan residing on Israeli land. The territories would be joined with Israel and Jordan economically in a sort of free-trade zone. But Israel would retain sovereignty over the land.

To the Arab demand of occupied “land for peace,” Shamir responds that it’s sufficient that Israel already gave back the Sinai Peninsula as part of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Now, he says, he offers only “peace for peace.”

Where Israel might bend: Within Israel’s Foreign Ministry, at least, there are murmurings of a more liberal settlement that would mean giving up more control over substantial portions of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. This would not be the same as statehood, but it would remove the irritant of occupation troops in towns and villages and permit limited expressions (a flag, perhaps) of national pride. Palestinians would be able to negotiate questions of water and land usage on a more equal footing.

Israel would maintain its forward military positions on the Jordan River and, as now, its army would communicate with Jordan on issues of border defense.

In time, the Palestinians might gain full independence--probably in confederation with Jordan--but such final arrangements would not be made until after a trial period of at least three years for limited autonomy.

Settlement policy under right-wing governments, including Shamir’s, have been designed to bring a large enough Israeli population into the territories so that it would be unthinkable for a Palestinian state to be established there. Under possible compromises, the Israeli settlers could stay on--as citizens of Israel in the territories.

Jerusalem is a subject no one likes to touch. Even advocates of compromise say the issue should only be brought up when just about everything else is settled. The position of every Israeli government, right and left, is that Jerusalem should remain fully under Israeli control, including the parts taken over and annexed in 1967.

Syria and the Golan Heights

Syrian leader Hafez Assad says he is entitled to get back the Golan Heights, which his country lost in 1967. Reports from Damascus insist that Assad cannot accept less than the late Anwar Sadat won for Egypt when he signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979--that is, all conquered territory. He also is on record as favoring a Palestinian homeland.

Assad has long struggled for tacit recognition of Syria’s predominance in Lebanon, and appears, thanks to his alliance with the United States during the Gulf War, to have achieved just that. He backs Lebanon’s quest to expel Israel from its self-proclaimed “security zone” in the south of the country.

Wiggle room for Damascus? There are reports that Syria can accept a rubbery compromise on the Golan, partly because it is lightly populated, with only about 25,000 residents now split evenly between Israelis and former Syrian Druze, a breakaway Muslim sect.

Demilitarization may be a starting point; so may be permission for Israeli settlers, many of whom farm the heights, to remain under some sort of long-term lease or other arrangement.

Although Assad’s rhetoric is heavy on support for the Palestinians, he has been known to cross them when it suits his purpose. In Lebanon, for example, he is currently backing a Lebanese army effort to disarm Palestinian guerrillas in the south. It is not clear whether he would let the Palestinians stand in the way of an agreement with Israel that he found favorable.

Any compromise with Assad will have to involve heavy military bargaining. But Assad’s strength is not what it was: He can no longer count on the Soviet Union for supplies, except on a cash basis. His money comes from rich oil states that are far more beholden to the United States for their defense than Syria. So, arms control may be as much a Syrian concern as an Israeli one.

Palestinians Seek Statehood

The Palestinians want a guarantee that somewhere down the road, peace talks will lead to independence and statehood on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They insist that it should be a state like any other, permitted to defend itself and to handle its own foreign policy.

The Palestinians frequently say that their problem is the core of Middle East conflict and must be resolved. Recent history seems to have shown that although the Palestinian issue helps make the Middle East unstable, it is not the only issue that does. The Gulf War disclosed other sources of conflict, and by choosing the losing side, the Palestinians weakened their case worldwide as well as within the Arab world.

As one Palestinian put it, “At this rate, we will be lucky to get Jericho,” the oasis town near the Jordan River.

Thinking the unthinkable: While continuing to trumpet maximum positions, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are looking at ways of compromise unimaginable a year ago. They are pondering autonomy--although as a temporary status.

They might ask that the autonomy period be one in which they can build “national institutions” in preparation for statehood--in which they build their own educational system, win the freedom to travel and repair a largely crippled economy without Israeli interference.

The claim of Palestinians to homes that they lost in 1948 in what is now Israel might be traded for financial compensation. Demilitarization may be acceptable as long as someone guarantees them at least a symbolic defense against Israeli encroachments.

The Palestinians want half of Jerusalem to be their national capital, but even on that issue they show some flexibility. They think that the city should remain physically unified, but that two flags should fly over it. Faisal Husseini, a local Palestinian leader, once promised to vote for Teddy Kollek, the Israeli mayor of the city, as long as Palestinians get their state and a piece of Jerusalem.

Jordan Wants Out of Middle

King Hussein’s country is weak and economically vulnerable. Its main demand is more of a plea: to be left out of everyone else’s squabbles. The Jordanian monarch has symbolically divested himself of the West Bank, which he lost in the 1967 war, saying it’s up to the Palestinians living there to work out their own future.

Still, the Palestinian future is intimately tied up with Jordan’s. Half the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin and rightist politicians in Israel insist that Jordan, rather than any land west of the Jordan River, is the Palestinian national home. The more hawkish of the Israelis say the monarchy should be overthrown and a Palestinian government installed to make its own peace with Israel and to ratify Israel’s control of the West Bank. It’s a threat Hussein does not take lightly.

(Gaza was won from Egypt, which maintains no claims to it.)

Still, if the Palestinians gain independence or autonomy, it would almost surely require some federative arrangement with Jordan, something Hussein has been willing to provide in the past. Security arrangements should not be difficult to make--Israel and Jordan have long cooperated on their common border to thwart guerrilla infiltrations.

The question of Jerusalem is thorny for Hussein like everyone else. As previous caretaker of the Muslim shrines in the city, Hussein would like to see some sort of Arab sovereignty over at least part of Jerusalem.

Rebuilding Lebanon

Lebanon is trying to pacify the wild southern part of the country, from which Palestinian and other guerrillas have traditionally launched raids on Israel and into which Israel has launched numerous retaliations. The maximum Lebanese demand is for Israel to abandon a strip of border land that it controls with the aid of a client Lebanese militia. Israel says it won’t go until Palestinian fighters are put out of business and Syria also withdraws from Lebanon.

With Syria now pulling the strings in Beirut, nothing is heard of a Syrian withdrawal. A settlement in Lebanon, in the end, depends on Israel and Syria coming to terms.

Egypt an Interested Observer

Egypt is trying to get its Arab brethren to do what it did more than a decade ago: win back lost land by ending the state of war with Israel. President Hosni Mubarak has worked to bring the Palestinians to the conference table and accept autonomy as a step toward statehood.

Mubarak is solidly with the West yet his country still plays a key leadership role in the Arab world. The combination gives him a strong voice in judging the fairness of agreements. And Egypt’s experience in negotiating peace with Israel could make it a valuable adviser, loosening stiff-necked Arab resistance to deals that may require slow, half-steps to accomplish.

Background: The Road to Peace Here are the major initiatives to broker Arab-Israeli peace since 1967:

* 1967: After the Middle East War, the United Nations passes Resolution 242. It calls for Israeli withdrawal from captured territory, recognizes Israel’s right to secure borders, designates U.N. mediator.

* 1969: Mediator Gunnar Jarring proposes that Israel relinquish the Sinai Desert and Egypt will then enter into a peace agreement. Egypt accepts in principle; Israel refuses, requesting direct negotiations without conditions.

* 1969: U.S. Secretary of State William C. Rogers III calls for Israeli withdrawal to prewar borders. Plan goes nowhere, but Rogers secures a cease-fire along Suez Canal.

* 1973: The Yom Kippur War leads to the Geneva peace conference, led by the United States, Soviet Union and the United Nations.

* 1977: Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat goes to Jerusalem, resulting in the 1978 Camp David Accords in which Israel trades the Sinai for a peace treaty, offers period of autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians reject idea, demand statehood.

* 1981: Saudi Arabia offers a plan implicitly recognizing Israel’s right to live in peace. Tensions leading up to the Lebanon War undermined the effort.

* 1982: After Israel invades Lebanon to drive out the PLO, President Reagan unveils a plan that bars a Palestinian state while making the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomous regions associated with Jordan. Israel refuses.

* 1988: Secretary of State George P. Shultz calls for talks, security for all states in region and recognition of Palestinian rights. Palestinians are to negotiate with Israel in partnership with Jordan.

* 1989: Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir presents a four-part peace plan calling for direct talks with Arab states, elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Palestinian representatives. Palestinians insist their representatives include residents of Arab east Jerusalem and Palestinians living abroad. Israel refuses. Associated Press