Tell the Arabs: Reforms First, Concessions Later : Mideast: As the West did with Gorbachev, Israel should wait for evidence of credibility.


Come October, the most important peace sweepstakes in the Middle East will probably take off right from our nation’s capital; the players are now just about all lined up at the gate. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir did the right thing Sunday by accepting Secretary of State James A. Baker’s proposal. It is the only thing Shamir could have done: Sign on to avoid being labeled an obstructionist to a historic accomplishment--perhaps the most important development in 45 years.

The question, of course, is what Israel is going to negotiate. The Shamir government has said that it will not cede land for peace. Further, there is a consensus by all of the major political parties in Israel that the status of Jerusalem, now the united capital of Israel, is not a subject for negotiation. The same holds true, perhaps with a little less emotion, for the Golan Heights. So what does Israel tell the Arab countries that are suddenly expecting to recover land that they lost in wars that they began?

Israel should borrow a chapter from the tactics of President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister John Major in their negotiations with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The Israelis should remind the Arabs, who waged war on their small state four times, that it took nine years for the superpowers, who were not even combatants, to negotiate the START treaty. But the United States and its allies want more than just a signed treaty from the Soviet Union; they are asking for dramatic changes and are prepared to risk the complete collapse of the Soviet system, even the outbreak of civil war, in order to achieve it. Israel, which is putting its very existence on the line, should settle for nothing less than similarly dramatic changes from its Arab neighbors.


The Syrians have used the Golan Heights as a staging area to hurl rockets on civilians living in the villages below. They cannot expect Israel to naively accept their declaration of peaceful intentions. If they want more than peace for peace, then Israel has a right to expect more from them: a new Syria, one based on free elections, free press, opposition parties, the abandonment of the policy of supporting terrorists and the dismantling of their police-state apparatus. When that happens, Israel’s representative to the peace conference could then offer to talk further about reaching a compromise on the Golan Heights.

The same message should be delivered to the Palestinians, to Jordan’s King Hussein, and to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Israel should remind them that the forces of democracy are sweeping the globe, showing great promise everywhere except in the Arab world. The Arabs’ adherence to theocratic and dictatorial regimes lends little credibility to their demands for an exchange of land for peace. After all, if the President of the United States is not willing to accept the word of Mikhail Gorbachev, who over the past five years has garnered for himself enormous international credibility and has revolutionized the world order, why should the state of Israel be expected to accept the word, written or otherwise, of Yasser Arafat and King Hussein, whose lips have barely dried from their embrace of Saddam Hussein and his vision of peace in the Middle East?

Israel should do what George Bush and John Major did. They did not blink when they had to tell Gorbachev, “You get the aid when we see you change, and if it takes you 25 years to change, then that’s how long it’s going to take us to respond.” That is precisely what Yitzhak Shamir should tell the Arabs. They may not like what they hear. But that’s too bad. There is a penalty for starting wars. It is called justifiable distrust and disbelief.

Shamir should make it clear that Israel is prepared to compromise, but only with an Arab world that makes the kind of fundamental changes that are now taking place everywhere else: exchanging their feudal states for societies based on democratic principles and values, and signing on to be a part of what George Bush calls the “new world order.” When that happens, the Arab states will discover a willing partner in Israel. In the meantime, what an Israeli prime minister could offer is complete autonomy for the Palestinians and peace for peace for the Arab states.