Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

News Analysis: in Middle East Peace Negotiations, Diplomacy May Not Be What It Seems

February 7, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

If diplomacy is an area where nothing is quite what it seems to be, Middle East diplomacy is a prime example.

The two days of multilateral discussions of Middle East regional issues last week in Moscow seem to have left barely a ripple on the surface of international affairs.

Media interest was minimal, compared to the massive coverage of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid back in October or even the two rounds of Arab-Israeli bilateral talks that followed in Washington in December and January.

But the news media are not always the best judges of significance. In fact, many astute observers see the Moscow conference as the major milestone so far of the Middle East peace process.

Granted that without the Madrid conference, peace talks between Israel and its immediate neighbors would not have materialized.

Granted, too, that without the bilateral talks Israel held separately with Syria, Lebanon and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the question of regional cooperation would be hardly relevant.

Still, the moment at which the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and a dozen other conservative Arab states entered the conference hall in Moscow alongside the Israeli delegation was a watershed in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The last time Zionism attempted to reach an accord with the Saudi kingdom was in the ear of Chaim Weizman and the Emir Feisal. An old photograph of the two of them has long seemed to project a lesson in missed opportunities.


Now, for the first time since those bygone days, representatives of the two sides were photographed together in Moscow.

Their speeches from the rostrum were predictably at cross-purposes. The Arab ministers dwelt on the Israeli settlements and “occupation;” the Israelis on development and cooperation.

But in the corridors, far from prying camera lenses, delegates from Israel, Oman, Qatar and other previously hostile places actually exchanged small-talk.

That may not seem like much in this epoch of collapsing “evil empires.” But for the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is a very great deal indeed.

When, the next day, the same Saudis, Oman is, Qataris and other Arabs made a point of attending the sessions of the various working groups with Israel, seasoned observers on the Israeli side saw a psychological barrier of monumental proportions crumbling before their eyes.

Plainly, the conservative Arab states were honoring the pledges they made to the Bush administration in the dark days of the Persian Gulf War. Nevertheless, they acted in Moscow in a way that compromised forever their decades-long boycott of “the Zionist entity.”

Although their ministers still gagged on the word “Israel” in their speeches, they did not mention the Palestine Liberation Organization. And, to a man, they vowed their commitment to a peaceable resolution of the conflict.

No one in Washington is naive about Middle East peacemaking. But policy-makers there and in other world capitals believe the prospect of regional cooperation, funded by the world’s wealthy nations, can in time soften resistance and speed progress in the bilateral negotiations.

The multilateral conference in Moscow was not without snags.

Syria, Algeria and Yemen did not attend.

The Palestinians boycotted the event when the enlarged delegation they sent, in violation of ground rules agreed to by all sides before the Madrid conference, was refused accreditation by the Russian hosts, backed by the United States,

They had hoped for support from the world media in their bid to seat diaspora Palestinian representatives at the multilateral conference and working groups.

But they found their public relations task much harder than in Madrid, where thousands of journalists hung on eve word uttered by Palestinian leaders Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi.


The two returned to Jerusalem on Monday, claiming a success of sorts. The United States and Russia pledged to support the presence of diaspora Palestinians in the working groups on refugees and on economic development when they reconvene this spring. But Israel says it is unalterably opposed to their inclusion.

Multilateral negotiations, by nature, are drawn out and boring from the media standpoint.

Bilateral talks, by contrast, make for more dramatic media fare. But there, too, the suggestion is that things are not as they seem.

The Syrian and Israeli delegates were barely civil to each other at the bilateral talks in Madrid and Washington. But if a banner headline Tuesday in the Histadrut newspaper Davar is correct, the bilateral meetings are a charade to keep the public in the dark.

The Davar story claimed that Syria and Israel are engaged in secret diplomacy over an interim settlement involving a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The newspaper’s veteran New York correspondent, Samuel Segev, cited “reliable U.S. diplomatic sources” for his information.

In the same edition, a strategic expert at King’s College in London was quoted as saying that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Syrian President Hafez Assad were “like Siamese twins” in terms of their coinciding interests.


The expert predicted back-channel negotiation between them, proceeding separately from, though simultaneously with, the ongoing bilateral negotiations.

If, on the other hand, the atmosphere at the bilateral talks is true indicator, no breakthrough is in the offing. The Syrians, after nearly 30 hours of meetings, still refuse to return the Israelis’ courteous “Good mornings,” according to Israeli negotiator Yigal Carmon, an adviser on terrorism to Shamir.

Of course, the polite Israelis may be deliberately courting rebuffs for their negative impact on the Syrians’ image.

Similarly, Syria’s demonstrative absence from the opening of the multilateral talks in Moscow appear to point to still-unremitting recalcitrance on the part of Damascus.

But Segev’s story pointed out that the original Israeli-Egyptian negotiations were conducted in secret, by the late Moshe Dayan and Ha’an Tohamey in Morocco, with no public indication of the historic breakthrough evident.

Recommended from JTA