Cutting Through Mistrust Baker struggles to convince parties in Mideast that risks can lead to increased security.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jerusalem.--Depending on a person's politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict began with the 1967 war in which Israel captured Arab-occupied lands. Or with Israel's birth as a state, in 1948. Or in the late 1800s with the start of the Zionist movement.

Each party to the conflict has its preferred date, just as each side can cite reasons why it is almost entirely in the right. Israelis and Arabs, as if they inhabited separate worlds, can list acts of violence directed against them by the other, heroic sacrifices of their own, United Nations resolutions supporting their side, resolutions ignored by the other side, but remain unmoved by the history of their opponents.

There are claims of rightness based on religion, based on who inhabited a place first and based on the use of force. Every attempt to weigh the claims or to somehow adjudicate them is ultimately fruitless because they are only footnotes to the real subject of the conflict. That subject, which has never changed, is land.

Israelis and Palestinians are equally convinced they are the rightful inhabitants of certain territories. From those overlapping claims has come the violence and mistrust.

Anyone working to find a solution through negotiations will be asked the same questions by all the parties: Who will sponsor peace talks? In what forum? With whom as a final arbiter? With what guarantee that, once decisions are reached, all sides will comply?

Secretary of State James A. Baker III spent last week here and in Arab countries trying to answer the questions. His talks focused on the ground rules for a conference, and he claimed enough success to keep his two-month old initiative alive.

Mr. Baker has talked of the recent Persian Gulf war as opening "a window of opportunity" for peace, as if to tantalize the parties with a glimpse of tranquillity on the other side of the ledge. If all went well, he would coax them to dive through the opening.

All the parties have posed conditions for making a move, demands based as much on psychological needs as on facts on the ground. Fear of the enemy counts for as much as what the enemy has actually done.

As Mr. Baker has learned, any mediator faces enormous difficulties winning agreement on how a conference should be run. Israel and Syria, for example, continue to dispute what role, if any, the United Nations should play, with Israel wanting the U.N. excluded. Differences over procedures foreshadow the larger problems negotiators will face if and when they discuss substance -- the questions of borders and peace.

Israelis and Arabs seek security, hunger for it, but are suspicious of change. Mr. Baker's chances for success have always depended on his convincing the parties that by risking change their security will increase.

No one will quickly abandon his suspicions. After four major Arab-Israeli wars in less than than 45 years, and countless lesser conflicts, governments and private citizens insist they are entitled to react skeptically to anyone promising a permanent peace.

Israel

In 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. While the territories were taken in less than a week of fighting, Israel has spent 24 years debating what to do with them.

On some questions there was a consensus. East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were formally annexed and, in the eyes of the government and an overwhelming majority of the public, became no less a part of the state than Tel Aviv. But no other country accepts the annexations as final.

The Sinai became a subject for negotiations. Israel returned it to Egypt as part of the 1978 Camp David accords. In return, Egypt became the first -- and so far only -- Arab country to end its formal state of war with Israel and sign a peace treaty.

Gaza and the West Bank remain under Israeli control and are the subject of debate that at times threatens to tear the country apart. Left and right are defined largely according to the future each proposes for these territories.

The right, including Israel's current government, maintains they are essential for Israel's security and in any case are the country's rightful possession. Extremists, including at least one cabinet minister, advocate kicking out the Palestinians.

The left, which has been gradually enfeebled in national elections, supports plans for giving up most but not all of the land. To be extremist is to accept the territories becoming an independent Palestinian state.

No government since 1967 -- left or right -- has been able to take irreversible action. The territories have been neither annexed nor given up. Annexation would bring condemnation from abroad, while any move toward giving up control threatens to ignite fierce protests at home.

About one million Palestinians lived in Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. Twenty-four years later, the number has risen to 1.8 million. Added to them are about 100,000 Jewish settlers, Israelis who have built homes there with the political and economic support of a succession of Israeli governments.

Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, often appears too dangerous to keep and too dangerous to leave. Its squalor breeds discontent that Israel controls only through military force. Israelis fear that if the restraints were removed, Gaza would explode and that the violence would be directed against Israel.

The West Bank, home of the Old Testament kings and prophets, is the biblical heartland of Judaism. Israeli governments have made it the site of the largest Jewish settlements and of large investments that future leaders would presumably find hard to abandon.

Military experts have debated the territories' value without coming to any single conclusion. Generals cited by the right insist the West Bank is a necessary buffer to protect Israeli cities against an invading land force. Experts favored by the left say a buffer is useless in the missile age and that the main security threat comes from the frustration of Palestinians.

Israelis do not automatically believe peace is a natural condition for the Middle East. They do not assume trust is sensible, and they cite both the Holocaust and Israel's wars to support their views.

Their mistrust extends to visiting officials, including Mr. Baker. When foreign statesmen arrive, Israelis welcome the attention but also express anxiety they are about to pressured into doing something against their will.

Their sense of insecurity was increased by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. If one Arab state could attack an ostensible ally, Israelis reasoned, Israel should not expect better treatment from its neighbors. When Iraq's Kurds were left largely to fend for themselves, Israelis added the corollary that they should not depend on guarantees from the U.S.

Palestinians

The 1967 war was simultaneously the Palestinians' biggest loss and their biggest gain. Thousands of Palestinians fled their homes to become refugees, adding to the thousands who lost their homes in 1948, but they gained a sense of self-identity and recognition from the world.

Members of the then-embryonic Palestine Liberation Organization used the war as their springboard. They launched a series of guerrilla attacks that won attention and financial support from the Arab world. In 1974, a year after another all-out Arab-Israeli war, Arab states endorsed the PLO as the Palestinians' sole legitimate representatives.

For more than a decade, the PLO sponsored a campaign of attacks against what it defined as Israeli targets, often including Israeli civilians. The PLO won notoriety but failed by every measure to weaken Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians in the territories took matters into their hands beginning in December, 1987. They launched what became known as the intifada, the uprising against Israel's military rule, and captured the world's attention with strikes and violent protests.

For a time, Palestinians were on the political offensive. Israeli authorities were under fire and confused, while Palestinians had the world's best-known cause. In 1988, the PLO acknowledged Israel as a state and was rewarded with the opening of official contacts with the United States.

Most of the political gains were then squandered. Talks with the U.S. ended after a PLO faction, in a throwback to the discredited strategy of the past, tried to land guerrillas on a Tel Aviv beach. Yasser Arafat, in mid-1990, allied himself with Iraq and then endorsed its invasion of Kuwait, alienating the PLO from the Gulf states that bankrolled it.

Support for Iraq was a measure of the Palestinians' underlying desperation. They were searching for a patron, someone who looked strong enough to intimidate Israel into making concessions, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seen as the only candidate in the Arab world.

Mr. Arafat, by backing the occupation of Kuwait, undercut whatever moral standing the Palestinians won in protests against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He also lost his status as the person no Middle East peacemaker could ignore.

A poll published this month by an East Jerusalem newspaper showed the extent of the Palestinians' fatigue. More Palestinians supported linking the territories in a confederation with Jordan than creating an independent state. A majority described the intifada's effects as "weak," and said financial help from the PLO reached only the elite or no one at all.

Palestinians look to the Bush administration as their last, best hope. They see no other possible patron able to influence Israel -- and thus Palestinians' generally upbeat portrayals of their meetings with Mr. Baker.

Jordan

No Arab state is in greater need of a peace settlement or runs greater risks in entering negotiations for one.

King Hussein, who has ruled the country since 1952, governs a society where more than half the population is Palestinian. Jordan has no oil and little money. Since the gulf war, it also lacks Arab allies because of the king's failure to condemn Iraq's takeover of Kuwait.

Jordan needs the economic relief that a regional peace settlement might bring, as well as a relief valve for Palestinian nationalism that might otherwise threaten the king. If an independent Palestinian state seems impossible for now, a limited form of Palestinian autonomy, negotiated with Jordan's help, could make the king an enduring hero in the eyes of his subjects.

King Hussein cannot act unless the PLO gives its approval. He otherwise risks being labeled a traitor to the Palestinian cause. .. For much the same reason, he needs the approval of Syria, which nurtures hopes of being able to dictate a peace settlement according to its own terms.

Personal experience teaches King Hussein caution. His grandfather, King Abdullah, was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1951 when leaving prayers at Al Aqsa mosque, in punishment for conducting secret talks with Israel.

King Hussein was a witness to his grandfather's death and presumbly an impressionable student of the assassin's lesson. The lesson was that no one acting alone was safe, and it remains true.

Syria

Hafez el Assad, the Syrian president, is a leader who stakes out positions early, rarely changes them and has had mixed results.

He staked a claim to Lebanon and, through patience and strong-arm tactics, has won control over Beirut and most of the countryside. He sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, infuriated his fellow Arabs by doing so, but was welcomed as a beloved brother when Saudi Arabia needed allies to counter Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

Mr. Assad has been less successful in attempts to make himself the patron of the Palestinian cause. He has nurtured an $l alternative Palestinian leadership, Palestinians hostile to Mr. Arafat and dependent on Syrian support. But he has won little affection in return.

In discussions about peace talks, Mr. Assad has favored United Nations involvement, a role rejected by Israel. He has never wavered in his demand despite Mr. Baker's efforts to sway him, and Mr. Assad has gambled on either getting his way or having the process stop without him.

Robert Ruby is The Sun's Mideast correspondent.

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