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What it will take to get an Arab-Israeli peace. Heart of the problem: the need for compromise on claims to the same land

RECENT Palestinian-Israeli confrontations have refocused attention on how best to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. A political way out must be found, as the Reagan administration now seems to recognize. The next step will have to involve Palestinian-Israeli dialogue within the framework of an international conference. To assess the prospects for real progress in peace talks, five questions must be answered. Are the parties ready to settle?

In principle, the Palestinians stand to gain most from a compromise settlement. Since their current situation is so precarious, anything granting them a modicum of security and a firm political identity might be welcomed.

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On balance, Palestinians are prepared to recognize Israel in return for the right to establish their own political institutions in the West Bank and Gaza; they could start negotiating with Israel on transitional arrangements but will need political cover from the Palestine Liberation Organization to go beyond interim steps.

Turning to Jordan, one senses that King Hussein and his closest advisers genuinely want to see the conflict with Israel end. A primary motive is the fear that Palestinian aspirations, if thwarted, will eventually seek an outlet on the East Bank of the Jordan. The King cannot negotiate, however, without a mandate, which he does not now have. He therefore strongly prefers an international conference to bilateral negotiations.

The Israeli scene is dominated by the deadlock between the two big political blocs, Labor and Likud. Labor politicians, concerned about the demographic reality of present-day Israel, seem ready to negotiate with Jordan and non-PLO Palestinians. For Israelis who value democracy, it is worth relinquishing much of the occupied territory to avoid a choice between remaining democratic but ceasing to be a predominantly Jewish state, or remaining a Jewish state but ceasing to be democratic.

Likud and its allies see no urgency to reach a peace settlement: The Arabs are weak and in disarray, the demographic problem is still over the horizon, and the available avenues for negotiations are all seen as stacked against Israeli interests. The ideologues genuinely believe in the integrity of Eretz Israel, and are not prepared to consider territorial withdrawal from the West Bank under any circumstances. Prime Minister Shamir, however, has shown some preliminary interest in suggestions from Washington on how to start negotiations. He does not want to be seen as an obstacle to peace.

Syria's President Hafez Assad has generally expressed deep skepticism about the possibility of a peaceful settlement. He has, however, withheld criticism so far of the new proposals from Washington.

In the real world of diplomacy, there is enough here to work with, provided the impasse in Israel can be broken, a Palestinian interlocutor can emerge, and Syrian negativism can be overcome. Yet negotiations require more.

How strong are the political leaders?

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In the 1970s, when serious progress was made in settling parts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the leaders in Israel, Egypt, and Syria were all quite strong and reasonably self-confident. Leaders in the 1980s, by contrast, tend to be more defensive, more preoccupied with internal problems, and less willing to take risks.

In Israel, a test of political strength took place in the spring of 1987. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tried to win support within the Cabinet for a set of guidelines, including an international conference, to govern negotiations with King Hussein. Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister, was adamantly opposed to the conference format. The Cabinet split down the middle. Nothing yet has happened to break that deadlock.

King Hussein's political strength at home does not translate into a mandate to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. The King has always thus felt he needed some political cover, either from the PLO or other Arab parties, especially the Syrians.

Yasser Arafat, though head of the PLO for nearly 20 years, has never been free of challenges within the Palestinian movement. His survival has depended on offering something to each major constituency. The result is a measure of apparent unity, but the price has been uncertainty and lack of discipline on many crucial issues. The test now will be whether a coalition of Palestinians from the territories, with PLO support, can begin serious political discussions with the Israelis on transitional steps. No single figure can move on his own.

Finally, Assad, still the uncontested ruler in Damascus, would have to be offered something tangible before joining negotiations. Typically, his stance has been to wait and then intervene harshly, blocking moves that seem detrimental to Syria's interests. His capacity, if ignored, to disrupt the peace process should not be underestimated. Fortunately, the Reagan administration is now consulting with him.

Is there an identifiable substantive trade-off?

Since 1967, all serious initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict have been based on United Nations Resolution 242; its central premise was that Israel would exchange territory occupied in the 1967 war in return for peace, recognition, and security from her Arab neighbors. Some of its inadequacies and limitations were noted soon after its passage. For example, it referred to the Palestinians only as refugees and it was vague on the crucial issues of withdrawal and peace commitments.

Today, 242 no longer provides an accepted substantive concept for negotiations. For Arabs favoring negotiations, 242, with its emphasis on Israeli withdrawal, is still the most compelling peace model. But Israelis, divided internally on this issue, are unwilling to spell out the territorial dimension of a peace agreement.

Since Camp David, the idea of negotiating an interim functional agreement on ``autonomy'' has received considerable attention; yet it has never seemed very attractive to the Arab parties. First, it seemed unlikely to offer Palestinians living under occupation much in the way of control over land, water, and economic activity. Second, the Palestinian diaspora's political status would remain vulnerable. Today, the diplomatic art requires that principles be developed for a transitional period that holds out real hope for the Palestinians and is also compatible with Israel's security, and that a framework for an overall settlement be simultaneously worked out. Is there a supportive international environment?

To date, there have been no negotiated agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors without some third-party involvement. Most often, that role has fallen to the United States, but the UN has also been involved.

Between 1974 and 1979, the US was unusually active in promoting Arab-Israeli peace talks. Five formal agreements were signed. Since then, the US role has been more low-key, often focusing on procedural issues. Some progress has been made through secret Jordanian-Israeli diplomacy, but not enough to start open negotiations.

The Reagan administration is in the early phase of developing a new peace initiative. If formal negotiations are to begin, some international framework must be found. For Jordan, it is essential to have either the Syrians or the PLO, or both, involved in negotiations with Israel as a diplomatic cover for Jordanian-Israeli talks. The Soviets may be in an influential position to persuade these parties to take part. Once the Soviets are involved, one is talking about an international conference.

The arguments against such a forum are well known. There is little evidence that a conference will help resolve substantive issues and considerable danger that the superpowers will line up on opposite sides, perhaps adding rigidity to an already complex negotiation.

Yet a wide area of consensus has developed in the international community on the desirability of an international forum. Egypt, Jordan, and many Palestinians are enthusiastic supporters. The Labor half of the Israeli government is in favor. The US and the Soviet Union agree in principle, but differ on details. Syria is skeptical, but has endorsed the idea. Only the Likud half of the Israeli government is adamantly opposed. The administration hopes to overcome that opposition by working out principles of agreement in advance.

Can face-saving procedural moves be taken?

Often the debate over procedures is a way of stalling or warding off pressures on other issues. Yet important procedural problems must be addressed. Most important is who will negotiate for the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians there appear increasingly determined to act on their own behalf. Yet clearly any Palestinians who agree to negotiate with Israel will do so only with PLO approval. Israel says it will not negotiate directly with the PLO, but will not ``search the pockets'' of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to see where their loyalties lie. The US could play a key role in helping an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue to open by calling for municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a step would help legitimize a group of Palestinians that could then deal with Israel on at least transitional arrangements.


Israelis and Palestinians are fed up with the prevailing situation. That discomfort is precisely what is needed to start a serious debate in each camp over how to change the status quo.

The US has lost credibility as an Arab-Israeli peacemaker in recent years, particularly with Arab parties. To be effective, the US will have to build solid foundations through sustained political dialogue with both sides. The process can begin now, even if it will probably be difficult to move very far until after the US and Israeli elections later this year.

After the stones, bullets, and beatings of early 1988, perhaps all parties will recognize the need for peace talks. The challenge to the United States is to strengthen those forces prepared for a historic compromise between the Israeli and Palestinian claims to the same land, for that is now the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

William B. Quandt is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 1977 to 1979, he served on the National Security Council staff with responsibility for Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of ``Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics'' (Brookings, 1986). This article was adapted from The Brookings Review, winter 1988.

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