News Analysis: Arabs and Israelis Must Now Move from Rhetoric to Real Give-and-take

Israelis and Arabs have broken new ground in Madrid by talking with each other, both publicly and privately.

But in the hoped-for second round of direct talks, to take place at a still-unresolved place and time within a few weeks, the parties will have to do more than just talk. They must begin discussing specific solutions to the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian disputes.

With the parties now gone from Madrid, the issues of place and time will dominate the coming days. Secretary of State James Baker is working toward an agreement on this as soon as possible.

Procedure was the main agenda item in Israel’s separate, face-to-face talks Sunday with Syria, Lebanon and the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Israel wants the direct talks to alternate between Israeli and Arab cities. Syria strenuously opposes doing so, because this would mean official recognition of Israel.

On issues of substance, Baker told reporters that each side in Madrid staked out “maximalist positions” from which they would only back off in private, one-on-one negotiations.

The one gesture most acknowledged as an ice-breaker by the other side was the Palestinian position, backed by Jordan, of accepting some interim autonomy arrangement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Of course the Palestinians hinged that position on being assured that a Palestinian state would eventually be created. But even that appeared reasonable, compared with Syria’s demand that Israel return the Golan Heights before discussions could take place on any other issue, including future security arrangements there.

In addition to the face-to-face procedural talks that began this week, Israel wants to jump into multilateral negotiations involving such regional issues as water resources, arms control and economic cooperation. But Baker has yet to announce arrangements for those talks to begin.

The Arab delegates said they did not care about negotiating on any of those issues unless they got their land back. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa charged that Israel is “only interested in entering bilateral negotiations on economic cooperation.”

In general, the Arabs have shown little interest in confidence-building gestures until Israel indicates a willingness to give up territory.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the idea of suspending the four-year-old Palestinian uprising in the territories in exchange for a halt to new Jewish settlements. Ashrawi said the two are not equal.

Syria repeatedly invoked U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which it interprets as requiring Israel to give up all land acquired in 1967.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, on the other hand, maintained that “the issue is not territory but our existence.”

With little inclination toward compromise on either side, the parties resorted late last week to discussing their own countries’ virtues and enumerating their enemies’ faults, however irrelevant.

‘THIS IS STRATEGIC TERRITORY’

This war of words took place not only on the floor of the majestic Hall of Columns, but also over the airwaves and in the pages of newspapers around the world.

Israeli officials reportedly gave over 2,500 interviews in Madrid, and the Arabs showed no less interest in courting the Western news media.

The ball may have started rolling when Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began extolling Israel’s democratic virtues and berating the Arab world’s support of terrorism and less “humane” way of treating citizens.

Sharaa of Syria snapped back during a CBS News interview last week when he compared Shamir with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, calling both intransigent, undaunted by U.N. resolutions and unpopular around the world.

The nadir occurred at last Friday’s closing of the plenary session, when Shamir called Syria “one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world.” Sharaa responded by unveiling an old photograph of a 32-year-old Shamir, saying he was wanted then for terrorist assassinations.

Despite the polemics, Sharaa indicated a recognition that Israel would have to be given security guarantees if Syria was ever to get back the Golan Heights.

Acknowledging the legitimacy of Israeli fears, he said, “As far as Israel concerned, this is strategic territory,” because the Golan is “way above sea level.”

“We are not against the idea of security agreements once Israel has withdrawn from the Golan Heights,” he said. “If it desires to establish an arms-free area, this should be along both sides of the national boundary, a demilitarized zone.”

His remarks indicated that Syria still considers the prospect of getting back the Golan within the realm of possibility. That may explain why Syria ultimately showed up Sunday for direct talks with Israel, after engaging in a prolonged procedural fight.

The Israeli-Syrian talks were reportedly strained. But they lasted five hours, and afterward, Syrian chief negotiator Muafaq Alaf said that “although we are not at all satisfied, we will continue talking with them.”

Before leaving Madrid, the sharp-tongued Sharaa put in a nice word, saying that “the Israelis as a people desire peace.” The problem, he said, is that the Israeli government is “more hawkish, more intransigent than its people.”

That may or may not be true. But it is clear, nonetheless, that for the moment, Syria is prepared to negotiate with that hawkish government and still sees a chance at reconciliation.

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