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Israelis, Arabs Plan Strategies

Arabs will join together to call for a halt to Israeli settlements, but unity may not last

AS the Middle East peace conference approaches, Arab leaders seem to have forged a minimum united negotiating position, but they have not agreed on a way to make sure that the Palestinian problem is solved before peace agreements are worked out between Israel and its neighbors, according to Arab analysts here.A declaration issued in Damascus last week by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinians said the Arab side was seeking "an immediate halt to the Israeli settlements and complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories." It also said there would be no separate deals between any Arab state and Israel. But United States Secretary of State James Baker III says Washington opposes any Arab plan that would prevent bilateral agreements with Israel. And Israeli leaders have already declared that they are not going to Madrid to make a territorial compromise but to work out normal diplomatic relations with the Arab states. Many Arab officials fear that Israel will seek one-on-one peace treaties with Arab states, without solving any land disputes, and move on to the multilateral talks on regional security and economic arrangements. After last week's meeting in Damascus, officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said the declaration boosted their position, but admitted that there was no Arab commitment to boycott the regional talks if there were no progress on the Palestinian question and on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The failure of the Arab leaders to reach a binding strategy, maintain Arab analysts, is because of the prevailing strains in inter-Arab relations, the resulting mistrust, and the fact that the coordination meeting in Damascus took place only after the Arab governments had accepted US terms for the peace conference. Syria brought about the inter-Arab meetings by telling Washington that it would not attend the multilateral talks without the return of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Jordan and the PLO first called for an Arab coordination meeting, but reportedly Syria and Egypt objected to the gathering. So when Damascus called for a boycott of the regional talks and for a meeting at the foreign-minister level, it provoked suspicion in Jordan, and even in the PLO, that the whole move was conceived as a way to pressure Israel to accept a territorial compromise on the Golan Heights. According to Jordanian official sources, the Syrian position on the multilateral discussions remains vague after the meeting. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad also has not agreed to suggestions by Jordan's King Hussein that Israel's neighbors hold a summit meeting before Madrid. Jordan, for its part, has already promised Mr. Baker to attend the multilateral talks and cannot backtrack. "We have committed ourselves to going to that regional conference and believe it must be held and there is no change as far as we are concerned," King Hussein told the Cable News Network over the weekend. Jordan, which is leading the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to Madrid, is equally concerned that no bilateral agreements are reached, but seems to favor a mechanism that ensures progress on all levels of talks simultaneously. "Maybe the Syrian attitude is that we should not move on regional issues before settling the basic ones, but I believe that the two should go together, and the regional dimension gives us a promise of what can happen if peace is achieved," Hussein said in the same interview, partly reflecting Jordan's need for a regional agreement to regulate the distribution of water. Preparation for the Madrid conference has so far triggered a process of fence-mending and reconciliation of the disputes triggered by the Gulf war. The Damascus meeting was preceeded by reconciliations between the PLO and both Egypt and Syria. And the meeting may have eased the tension between Jordan, the PLO, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis ceased financial aid to the PLO and Jordan in retaliation for their support for Iraq during the Gulf war. Arab sources close to the meetings said that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal emphasized Saudi support for the Jordanian and Palestinian political demands at the conference but made no commitments to resume aid. Although Saudi Arabia will attend the Madrid conference as an observer, it can influence the process through the aid it can offer Jordan, the PLO, and Syria.

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