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Israel Needs a Peace Conference

The Likud political leadership of Israel has opposed an international conference on the Middle East since it came to power in 1977. A few months into 1991, however, the global and regional situations have changed so much that Israel would find an international conference to its benefit. On the global level, the Soviet Union has switched from an absolute enemy of Israel to a country that is not only warming its relations with Israel (the two countries now have diplomatic relations on the level of consul general), but has also been cutting military aid to Israel's most dangerous enemy, Syria. President Gorbachev has openly urged Hafez al-Assad to settle Syria's conflict with Israel politically.

Consequently, Moscow, which supported all 12 United Nations resolutions against Iraq in cooperation with the United States could be expected to play a positive role, again in cooperation with the US, in reaching an equitable peace agreement at an international conference.

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On the regional level, major changes have occurred. Egypt, once ousted from the Arab League because of its 1979 peace agreement with Israel, has emerged from the Gulf war as perhaps the most influential Arab state. For both domestic and foreign policy reasons, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has every incentive to expand the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Given Egypt's increased influence in the Arab world, it might be expected to press both the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) and Syria, with which it has become aligned, to make peace with Israel.

The international conference itself will be very different from the one envisioned in 1977. At that time the gathering was to deal primarily with the Palestinian problem. By 1991 there are a whole series of problems, all of them interlinked, that will have to be dealt with at such a conference. These include arms control (conventional arms as well as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons), the sharing of water (major water shortages face Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt), peace agreements betw een Israel and the Arab states, and the problem of Lebanon, as well as a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

Until now Israel, justifiably, has been unwilling to relinquish nuclear weapons so long as its Arab neighbors were in a state of war with it. For their part, Arab states such as Syria developed chemical weapons, in part at least, to counter Israel's nuclear weapons. With peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, it will be far easier to reach arms control agreements; without such peace agreements, it will be virtually impossible.

Without a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, it will also be impossible to settle the problem of Lebanon. Currently both Israel and Syria see Lebanon, from a strategic point of view, as an avenue for military attack against the other.

THE water problem is increasingly serious. Israel depends on water from the West Bank and Golan Heights; Jordan faces a water deficit; Syria and Iraq are at the mercy of Turkey which controls the Tigris and Euphrates; and Egypt depends on Nile water flowing from Ethiopia through the Sudan.

Difficult as these situations are, perhaps the thorniest problem remains that between Israel and the Palestinians. Even after the defeat of Iraq, most Arab states will be unwilling to enter into peace talks unless Israel also deals with the Palestinian question. Similarly Israel, and in particular Prime Minister Shamir, has been unwilling to deal with the Palestinian problem unless peace talks are underway with the Arab states.

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Logically, both processes should take place simultaneously. An international conference could provide the framework for both sets of talks, thereby enabling both the Palestinian issue and the question of peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states to be dealt with at the same time. And, given the political weakening of PLO leader Yasser Arafat as a result of his backing of Saddam Hussein, it should be much easier for Israel to find Palestinians with whom to talk, if Israel offers them a serious peace proposal.

In sum, major global and regional changes over the last decade have made an international conference very much to the advantage of Israel, if it is willing to solve the Palestinian problem. The benefits to be obtained from such a conference (diplomatic relations with the Arab states, a settlement with the Palestinians, arms control, and water-sharing agreements) far outweigh any benefits Israel gets from clinging to the status quo.

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