Conventional wisdom has it that a comprehensive solution to the problems of the Mideast will be brought about by pressing Israel to the '67 frontiers, elaborating a new status for the Old City of Jerusalem and establishing Palestinian identity in return for recognition, peace and international guarantees.
I believe conventional wisdom to have no basis in Mideast reality. I can think of no conflict between Arab nations that was ever conclusively settled in one grand negotiation. Why then should it work between countries that have heretofore treated each other as mortal enemies? The missing ingredient in the conventional wisdom is that none of the parties shares the American view of peace as a terminal point after which all tensions dissipate; they all view it as but one stage in a continuing struggle.
This applies above all to Syria, which has emerged as the key player. Iraq, its principal rival, has been crushed, and Jordan, its neighbor, is too fragile to engage in negotiations without the approval of Damascus. Syria, a country with a long tradition but a brief history, considers itself the fount of Arab nationalism. As such, it has historically dismissed Israel as an illegal creation whose precise borders are philosophically irrelevant to its illegitimacy. When I first visited Damascus, the newspapers reported that I had come from "occupied territory;" my point of origin had been Tel Aviv, well inside the 1967 borders.
For Syrian President Hafez Assad and his colleagues in the Baath Party, the defense of the Arab nation and leadership of Arab nationalism have priority over such abstractions as the peace process. Accepting the permanence of Israel would be inconceivable for Syria before all Arab demands are met. I am convinced that Mr. Assad would surely reject peace based on a return of the Golan Heights unless the Palestinian question is resolved simultaneously. And if by some miracle that goal could be achieved, he would then insist -- as he already has -- on the enforcement of previous U.N. resolutions which call for the return of all Arab refugees to their homes, a process that would overwhelm Israel.
Of all the potential negotiators, Jordan's ruler is the most genuinely anxious for a lasting agreement. But his population is 60 percent Palestinian, and it inevitably considers all the territory west of the Jordan as its homeland. No doubt many of them are prepared to concede some sort of partition to end a 50-year odyssey. But most of them will continue to struggle for the land of their ancestors, most of which happens to be in pre-1967 Israel. The Palestinian aspirations should be understandable to the Jews who have kept their own yearning for that stark territory alive for 2,000 years. The difficulty is that Palestinian yearnings may not be compatible with Israel's survival.
Egypt is committed to a more permanent concept of peace than its Arab brethren because it has already achieved its maximum aim -- the restoration of the territories it considers its own. But with no unsatisfied claims left, it also has little incentive to run major domestic risks on behalf of an American peace process.
Israel looks on the entire exercise with foreboding. Only recently attacked by Iraqi missiles in the course of a war in which Israel did not participate, and then asked by its principal ally not to retaliate lest that trigger a general Arab assault, Israel sees no magic in retiring to borders within mortar range of its main cities, and which moreover were never recognized by the Arab states when they were Israel's official borders. Israel did make peace with Egypt along the '67 border. But its quid pro quo was not the phrase "peace," but the reality of a demilitarized Sinai some 140 miles deep. Such conditions do not exist on Israel's other frontiers. Thus the slogan "land for peace" translates in Israel into trading the tangible for the revocable. After all, "peace" and "recognition" did not prevent the rape of Kuwait or the Iran-Iraq War or the India-Pakistan bloodlettings.
For all these reasons, the Palestinian problem cannot at this moment have a final outcome, especially as the peace process as now conceived will be viewed by Palestinians as a first step, and by Israel at best as a security problem, and at worst as a violation of Biblical rights. And even should King Hussein feel differently -- as the last two American administrations hoped -- he is constrained by his powerful Syrian neighbor whose motivation is the historic vision of Palestine as part of greater Syria.
What is possible, however, is a progressive easing of tensions through a series of partial agreements. But to do so a substantive program must be developed with the key parties.
The peace process as now conceived will veer toward deadlock even if a conference is assembled -- as I believe it will be, sooner rather than later. To escape a humiliating impasse, there will be a great temptation for massive pressure on Israel to achieve the terms of conventional wisdom. At that point, the Jewish state will have to decide between a pre-emptive war or collapse. It would be a tragedy if America's victory in the Gulf War produced nothing more elevated than a vindication of the words of the Arab leader who in 1975 outlined his strategy to me as follows: "America has betrayed Vietnam. It will surely abandon Taiwan. And we will be here when it gets tired of Israel."
Since in the minds of the parties most concerned, the word "peace" will therefore reflect a stage in a process, not a final destination, American mediation should confront the issue of appropriate stages explicitly. Such an effort requires a subtle hand. History teaches that every agreement since the founding of the state of Israel flowed from American pressure. If that pressure is not even-handed it tempts the Arabs to raise their terms and the Israelis to obscure their desperation by truculence. The role of America is to give the Arabs hope that U.S. efforts will yield more than they would achieve alone, while Israel must be made to feel that there is a floor under the risks it will be asked to run.
This balancing act is more easily described than executed. Israel must be brought to understand that the territorial status quo will not be supported by the United States; the Arab leaders must accept that America cannot be maneuvered in the Middle East as it was in Vietnam into the step-by-step strangulation of an ally.
Because explorations of a staged settlement will involve sensitive issues that are essentially incommensurable -- territory exchange for such steps as the end of belligerency, lifting the boycott and free movement of populations -- they should be conducted with great confidentiality. Concreteness is of the essence. Perhaps the position of the parties will emerge as closer than now appears probable. In that case, a comprehensive solution becomes possible. The more likely outcome is a series of interim agreements.
The United States has avoided such dialogue because it feared that premature dealing with substantive issues could scuttle the peace process. But if exploring substance scuttles procedure, what hope can there be for a conference?
It is not too late to rethink conventional wisdom. The slogan "land for peace" is a mirage for Israel if it includes the '67 borders and the Old City of Jerusalem, and a trap for Arabs genuinely eager to end tensions. The real goal should be "land for time" -- time in which to test interim agreements, disarmament provisions and prospects of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Israelis.
An interim approach could begin with turning over Gaza either to Jordan or to an Arab consortium immediately in exchange for verifiable disarmament arrangements. This could be followed or accompanied by an interim arrangement for the West Bank that returns the largest possible population either to Jordan or to an Arab consortium while protecting essential Israeli security concerns. Twenty-five years ago, the deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, put forward such an idea that returned most of the population to Jordan, while constituting the high ground and the Jordan valley as an Israeli security zone.
It might even be possible to bring to the table entirely new and daring concepts such as a divided sovereignty for the West Bank, in which Arab countries would be responsible for civil administration and police and Israel for external security. Such an approach would permit both sides to learn the grammar of peace rather than using the slogan to demoralize each other.
America's role in such an approach would be less sweeping but in the end more rewarding than the effort to solve every issue in one grand negotiation. But it would likely have better prospects for success and lead to outcomes that are morally defensible.
Henry Kissinger writes a syndicated column.