Finally, it seems, a peace conference might convene in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir Friday said, "We must start negotiations, and we want to start them now."
What is bringing the Israeli government to the conference, and, if both sides want to talk, why is it so difficult to get discussions going?
Mr. Shamir has reasons to believe that this is not the optimal time for Israel to negotiate. In a few years Syrian President Hafez el Assad might disappear from the scene, making Syria much weaker. Also, the number of settlers on the West Bank will double. At that time the cards will be stacked in Mr. Shamir's favor much more than now.
However, he is under intense pressure for a conference now. His central concern is the constraints on the negotiations imposed from the outside.
The main driving forces of the various parties in these pre-conference negotiations is to set it up so that their respective cards will carry the greatest weight.
Israel is sitting on the real estate which the Palestinians and the Syrians want. The United States and the rest of the world take a position very close to the Arabs regarding the final shape of the peace agreement: a return to the 1967 borders on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, except for minor modifications. This has been the consistent position of the United States since 1967. The Syrians will insist on total return to the 1967 borders. The Palestinians will agree to minor modifications on the West Bank.
Israel's insistence on direct negotiations has an aspect of
principle and an aspect of negotiating tactics. On the principled side, direct contacts are a manifestation of an intention to live in peace, which in itself sends a powerful message to the Arab society.
On the tactical side, Israel is interested in minimizing the role of outside parties such as the United Nations, the Soviet Union, Europe and even the United States, since their positions regarding central parameters in the final settlement are very close to those of the Arabs, in particular regarding the final borders.
The jockeying around the structure of the conference therefore comes down to the following: Is the influence of those outside powers going to be brought to bear and, if so, to what extent and with what weight? With their role minimized, the natural dynamics of negotiations would portend to cutting the pie in the middle, which is what Israel aspires to.
The pie has all along included, besides real estate, the important element of peace. But this element was traditionally viewed as one the Arabs grant and Israel receives. The Shamir government, however, considers peace as a two-way street, one which both sides give and receive.
Viewed this way, what counts as half the pie looks very different from what it would look with peace counted as goods only the Arabs give, while the Israelis give land. And indeed, from the viewpoint of the Shamir government, peace now is something the Arabs need no less than Israel does.
The ultimate concern of the Shamir government and other participants is with what lies down the road. It is a safe bet that difficult negotiations like the ones with the Palestinians and the Syrians will deadlock more than once. What happens when they do? Will there be external pressure? How will it be distributed? Who will be blamed?
If the influence of the United States and the other external parties will be brought to bear, Israel is likely to be isolated when the negotiations stall. If the parties were to be left entirely to their own devices, it's more likely that they would be driven to settle somewhere in the middle.
The United States potentially has considerable leverage on Israel, in more than one way. Pointing the finger at Israel, or creating the climate for that, may have serious consequences with the U.S. public opinion on which Israel heavily depends.
The United States has no real leverage over Syria or the Palestinians. Thus, even if the United States were to act solely as an intermediary interested in seeing that there be a final settlement, it will be in a position -- and thus be tempted -- to pressure one party more than the other. What Israel wants is assurance that this will not happen: no finger pointing, no blame allocation.
The Arabs will have no motivation to compromise in the negotiating process if they feel that their demands could be enforced otherwise -- by pressure from the United States, United Nations or Europe. If the negotiations stall, will the Arabs have the option of walking away from the negotiating table and turning the negotiations over to the U.N. Security Council, which is heavily stacked against Israel? This is what Israel has in mind as "genuine" direct negotiations: Let the parties boil in their own juices in the negotiating process, with no outside referees.
Mr. Shamir would have liked best a mediator with no position on the disputed issues and no leverage on the parties. The United States has positions, and they are much closer to the Arabs' than to Mr. Shamir's; and it has leverage -- a lot with Israel, little with the Arabs.
If President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III will be willing assure Israel that they will act as a pressure-free broker, Mr. Shamir is most likely to join the process. But even then, will Israel trust such assurances?
Unfortunately, there is no trust lost between the Shamir government and the Bush administration. Each believes the other reneged on prior understandings on previous occasions. This lack of trust is likely to prove in the future, as it did in the last few years, one of the main obstacles for the peace process.
The two manifest issues on the table -- the presence of a non-participant U.N. observer and the renewability of the conference subject to the agreement of all parties, are not, it seems, real issues for Mr. Shamir. They are likely to be mere bargaining chips, to be traded in at the right moment. The concerns they might reflect are indirect, and will call for the kind of assurances mentioned above. Will there be a role for the U.N. Security Council to play if the negotiations stall? Will there be pressure on Israel by the Europeans and the United States? Without assurances to the contrary, Israel will not participate.
Igal Kvart is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and teaches philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.