WITH representatives of the world's most volatile region seated before them, the hosts of the Madrid peace conference called on Middle Eastern leaders yesterday to take the arduous steps necessary to move beyond their tragic history.In opening the meeting, United States President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called on participants to follow the example of their two countries by replacing belligerence with cooperation. Events of the past two years, they said, showed that former bitter adversaries could reach accommodation. "History need not be man's master," Mr. Bush said. Mr. Gorbachev said dramatic changes in the world had made negotiations possible, but that it was now the responsibility of Mideast leaders to take the task squarely on their own shoulders. Pointing to the region as the world's most heavily armed, the Soviet leader said not only their own peoples, but also the international community are "entitled" to expect results from their efforts. Spanish Premier Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, in a brief address welcoming participants to Madrid, reminded them of Spain's own recent renunciation of isolation for regional interdependence and international cooperation- building. Bush reiterated the theme of a March 6 policy speech, saying successful negotiations must be based on a dual emphasis of "fairness and security," two words that capture the essence of Arab and Israeli concerns. He also highlighted the need for movement on the central issue of the occupied territories, saying "We believe territorial compromise is essential for peace." In what was the opening session's emotional high point, Bush spoke of the region's long train of death and hate, "of too many generations of children whose haunted eyes show too much fear." Exhorting the delegates to take the steps for peace, he added, "If we can't do it for ourselves, let us do it for the children."
Upbeat atmosphere The solemn opening differed in tone from the previous evening, when a palpable sense of optimism and anticipation coursed through a number of arriving delegations. The upbeat atmosphere derived partly from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who said Israel had "come to make peace." Mr. Shamir's references on arrival to disputed territories, rather than use of the Biblical names for the occupied lands - and a second use of such terminology that day by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - caused a flurry of speculation that Israeli opposition to placing the occupied territories on the negotiating table was softening. A spokeswoman for the Palestinians' advisory delegation, Hanan Ashrawi, was quick to pick up on Shamir's first words in Madrid, calling them heartening and encouraging. Her words followed statements by several Palestinians, including Haidar Abdel-Shafi, leader of the Palestinian section of the joint delegation with Jordan, who distanced themselves from Palestinian delegate Saeb Erekat. Mr. Erekat had publicly referred to himself as a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israeli leaders stated, up until the conference opening, that the only thing that would make them abandon the talks would be the seating of a PLO representative at the negotiating table.
Terrorism strikes Madrid's atmosphere of anticipation Tuesday was not dampened either by a rash of anti-Israeli terrorist acts that killed five people or by a pro-Israeli-settlement organization announcement from the lobby of the hotel where US Secretary of State James Baker III was meeting with Shamir that two Jewish settlements had broken ground that day in the occupied West Bank. The announcement by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza turned out to be exaggerated: Israeli sources said the Israeli Army had blocked at least one settlement attempt, while the other remained unconfirmed. But while the tone was generally positive on the eve of the conference, Israelis were clearly uneasy about the way the US has handled decisions on procedural matters as well as over US-Israeli relations more generally. Mr. Netanyahu described as "a very unpleasant surprise for us" the US move - taken without sounding out Israel - to allow each half of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation 45 minutes to speak at the conference, the same amount each delegation will have. The Israelis were also put off when US officials seemed to expect them to overlook Mr. Erekat's statement. "The Israelis see this as a volleyball game where they are playing the Arabs, and the US is supposed to be the referee," says Dore Gold, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Tel-Aviv University. "Lately, when the ball is about to hit the floor on the Arab side, the referee steps in to pop it up."
US mediation The US may think it is thus facilitating the peace process, says Dr. Gold, but he says it could be making the way more difficult. "There is enormous public support in Israel for checking out the peace process," he says, "for giving it a try." But if the public doesn't "buy" American assurances anymore then "public confidence is eroded" and steps forward become more difficult. Israeli officials say the potential is strong for "something good for our region" to come out of the talks, including a resolution of occupied territories' future government and development. But they say that would only be possible if Israeli security and trust in the regional players, including the US, is enhanced. Meeting those prerequisites, Gold says, would allow an emerging Israeli conception for resolution of the dispute over the occupied territories, especially the West Bank. "There will be no pullout as from the Sinai; that model doesn't work someplace with 100,000 [Jewish settlers] living there," he says. While an Israeli security presence would be required, he adds, an "overlapping" of local and regional administrative authorities involving the Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians is a possibility.