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Mideast Peace Hope Rides on Madrid Talks

Israeli Public Wary of Trading Land for Peace

"I DON'T know what to hope for. I really don't know what would be best for us."As Israel prepares for the first time in its history for direct peace talks with all its Arab neighbors, that comment by a young yeshiva student sums up the uncertainties and unease Israelis feel about the outcome of the conference that begins in Madrid next week. Interviews with pollsters, political analysts, government officials, and ordinary Israelis reveal a broad desire for peace after more than 40 years of war, and an overwhelming approval of the talks that United States Secretary of State James Baker III has brokered during eight months of diplomacy. But they also illustrate a widespread unwillingness to make the sort of territorial concessions that could make peace a reality. "There is a great deal of satisfaction and relief that we are going to the conference," says opinion pollster Hannoch Smith. "But when you get to specific concessions, Israelis are uptight." Mr. Smith, who conducted his last survey seven weeks ago, found 87 percent of Israelis in favor of the talks, although they expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm. But half the respondents said that a deal swapping territories for peace - the basis of the coming talks - would be bad for Israel, while only 20 percent said it would be good for the country. Itzi, a young Tel Aviv taxi driver who would not give his second name, offered a clear illustration of this thinking. "The conference is good for everybody," he said. "It's very right to make peace for everyone in the world, and I'm an optimist." But when asked how he would solve the Palestinian problem, he said that "the Arabs have [many] big countries of their own. I don't think they can ask for the West Bank." And questioned about Syria's desire to regain the Golan Heights, lost to Israel in 1967, he argued that "it would be too dangerous for our security. If [Syrian President Hafez al-Assad] wants peace we will give him peace. Why should we give him land too?" Israelis' dreams of peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, says Yoell Marcus, a political commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz, are tempered by their fears about its practical possibility. "People are afraid ... to make a mistake that would endanger the security of the state," he says. "That is a real fear, and it is not imaginary." This contradictory thinking is an example of what political analyst Peretz Kidron calls Israelissplit personality." With 15 percent of the population at both ends of the political spectrum believing that Israel should either give up the territories or stay in them for ever, he says, "that leaves 70 percent in the middle suffering from communal schizophrenia, with everyone sharing the same fears and the same hostility towards the Arabs." Nonetheless, many Israelis feel the time has come to wash their hands of the Palestinian problem, even if they are unsure exactly how to do it. Four years of intifadah (uprising) - and the realization that Arabs may outnumber Jews in 20 years' time if Israel does not disengage from the occupied territories - have strengthened a willingness to withdraw. But there is a reluctance to countenance real self-determination for the Palestinians. Smith found that only 30 percent of Israelis believe that they could live with a Palestinian state on their eastern border. Meanwhile, misgivings about the peace talks among ordinary Israelis have been heightened by a growing mistrust of the American role in the negotiations. The Bush administration's refusal to consider Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees before the conference got under way and its declarations that the United Nations resolutions on which the talks will be based require Israel to make territorial concessions have undermined Israelis' traditional confidence that they have the unreserved support of a powerful ally. "The Americans are not standing behind Israel," complained Aviad Mack, who joined an anti-Baker demonstration outside the US consulate in West Jerusalem during the Secretary of State's last visit. "We feel weak and we do not trust the Americans." That mistrust is based on a sensation that Washington is in a mood to force the Israeli government to make concessions in the talks, which is seen even here as essential to their success. "If the Americans keep up the pressure, that is the key," says Mr. Kidron. "Then you will see realism." If public opinion is showing no willingness yet to cede land to Israel's neighbors, it might be because the issues are too large and too vague to grasp easily, says one government official. "Everybody knows exactly why we are going to the peace process," he argues. "People are willing to be talked into concessions." Veteran observers recall the mood before the Camp David peace talks with Egypt, when 75 percent of Israelis opposed giving back the Sinai. But once a deal was on the table, two-thirds of the electorate supported it. So far, the mood is far from the electrified atmosphere that characterised the launch of the Camp David talks. But that, explains the government official, is because "this moment is the epitome of the unknown; we have never been in such a situation." And there is widespread skepticism that the talks will ever actually bear fruit. "I don't really believe in the Arab countries and they don't really believe in us," said Zohar, a young man on his way to the beach last Friday. "So I don't think there is much chance of peace now." Faced with negotiations that some say will guarantee Israel's survival while others claim the talks will lead to its destruction, Israelis are proceeding, says Marcus, "like blind people, feeling their way with their hands."

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