Talks That Go Nowhere


There have been enormous changes in the world, but few in the politics of the Middle East in the 20 months since -- with great fanfare and heavy U.S. backing -- the "peace process" was launched with a meeting in Madrid.

Encouraged by the Bush administration, Israelis chose a new government, but the other governments of the region are unchanged. They include one-party dictatorships, an expansionist theocracy, and several modified monarchies and oligarchies.

Israel remains the area's only democracy and the only pariah in the region. Although some states have formally ended the economic boycott of Israel, most maintain it. And though Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt have ended the diplomatic boycott, all except Egypt limit contact to the peace talks where the emphasis is always on what divides the parties rather than on common problems.

Probably, the region has grown even more dangerous in these 20 months. Saddam Hussein has managed to rebuild 90 percent of the military strength Iraq possessed before the gulf war, and is now producing upgraded Scud missiles. Iran and Syria continue to buy and build ever more sophisticated weapons and missiles with which to deliver them. American experts on the weapons trade believe China has stepped up sales to Iran (and possibly to Syria) of chemicals and missile technology.

But the most volatile and violent element in the politics of the region is human. It is the growing strength of the Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalists whose power is felt inside all the countries of the region, including Israel. The fundamentalists are everywhere except in the peace talks that they have sworn to destroy.

In the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel, the fanatics of Hamas maintain the intifada, attack authority, destroy peace, provoke countermeasures and mercilessly attack Arabs suspected of desiring peace.

In Egypt, they are at war with Hosni Mubarak's moderate government. From Lebanon, the Hezbollah fire missiles across the border to attack Israelis and allied Lebanese soldiers in the security zone. Forty-five thousand Syrian troops provide protection for the fanatics of the Party of God, who have made Lebanon a no man's land of kidnappers and extortionists. Syria's control of Lebanon testifies to Hafez al Assad's expansionist goals. And the Hezbollah testify to his continuing alliance with Iran.

Though Iranian-sponsored extremists are not represented in the peace talks, they affect the process in multiple ways -- by making the Palestine Liberation Organization look more acceptable to some Israelis and some Americans, and by giving the governments of Jordan and Egypt a new sense of vulnerability to violent extremists.

Despite these facts on the ground, Dennis Ross, U.S. coordinator for the Arab-Israeli peace talks, remains boundlessly, endlessly optimistic that progress toward a formal peace can be made now. Mr. Ross' optimism is a principal reason that Secretary of State Warren Christopher will visit the region the first week in August.

Alas, the mere announcement of Mr. Christopher's impending visit has reminded participants of their non-negotiable demands which they have hurried to reiterate in recent days.

The Palestinians demand that representatives from East Jerusalem be included in their delegation. But Israelis see an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of their country, and a cause to die for.

Lebanon demands that Israel withdraw from the "security zone" established by Israel as a buffer on Lebanon's southern border.

Syria demands that Israel withdraw unilaterally, completely and immediately from the Golan Heights.

Israel demands that Syria withdraw its troops, too, and that it control the Hezbollah guerrillas, who in this month alone, have killed five Israeli soldiers and wounded 10 more in the security zone. "We know that the Syrians are directly involved . . . without a general Syrian willingness. Hezbollah couldn't pull the trigger," an Israeli official observed. Syria wants Israel out of Lebanon. Israel wants tangible, reliable assurances that the Jewish state will not again be attacked by Syria.

The U.S. Senate demands (by way of a resolution) that Syria withdraw its 45,000 troops from Lebanon. The Lebanese prime minister demands that the U.S. Senate cease its interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. "If things go on like this," he said, "we will have to discuss the usefulness of our continued participation in the negotiations," which is diplomatic language for "Shut up your Congress or we'll quit the talks."

All the Arab governments demand that the United States force Israel to make further concessions. The U.S. government probably could not, and assuredly should not, do so. No government of Israel can accept the "withdraw first, negotiate later" demands of Syria and Lebanon. And no government of Israel can accept Palestinian demands for sovereignty.

Therefore, the likelihood of progress in this session appears slim.

Successive governments of Israel have already made significant, unilateral concessions. Israel accepted the presence of well-known PLO members on the Palestinian delegation. It announced for the first time ever that it was -- in principle -- ready to relinquish territory in the Golan Heights in exchange for real peace with Syria. It offered new opportunities for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israelis have encouraged discussion of a Jordan-Palestine federation -- which makes sense only as a preliminary move toward a Palestinian-Jordanian state.

As in Egypt and Jordan, Israel has domestic political problems. The government has a reinvigorated domestic opposition, and it probably cannot make further concessions except in the context of broad mutual compromises, which do not seem likely.

That being the case, Warren Christopher may be the one who decides he's had enough.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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