Sowing The Seeds Of A Mideast Peace

The most important thing about President Bush's Mar. 6 address to Congress was that he sought to parlay victory in the gulf into a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since 1967, U. S. policy has been based on U. N. Resolution 242, which calls for Arab states to recognize Israel, and for Israel to trade territory for peace. That was how Egypt got the Sinai back in 1979--by making peace with Israel. Now, the erasure of the Iraqi threat creates new opportunities to swap land for peace.

To make this happen, Bush will have to impress on both sides, as President Reagan did not, the firm U. S. commitment to this approach. Within that framework, the crucial negotiation must be between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Palestine Liberation Organization has no electoral mandate to represent them. The only way to choose legitimate Palestinian negotiators is to hold elections in the occupied territories. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir now appears ready for such a vote, which he proposed in 1989 but then backed away from. Israel needs negotiating partners with the authority to commit the Palestinians to binding settlement terms.

Negotiations will be grueling, because the two sides' objectives are so far apart. But if such a confrontation with hard reality succeeds, it will produce broad recognition of what many on both sides have refused to accept up to now: the inevitability of compromise and concessions. To ease Israeli fears, the U. S. should stand ready to guarantee any settlement that is reached--including, most likely, the demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza.

Winding down Arab-Israeli hostility will also require negotiations on a second track to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states. If the Palestinians make peace, there's little doubt that governments of other Arab countries, who have no direct quarrel with Israel, will follow suit. The exception is Syria, which insists it must get back the Golan Heights, a narrow strip annexed by Israel as a defensive buffer. The Sinai, which was returned to Egypt and demilitarized, suggests a similar win-win solution for the Golan: land for peace.

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