Keeping Up Appearances Of Movement

We cannot and should not let form dominate substance," Secretary of State James Baker cautioned last week as he wound up his second postwar tour of the Middle East. The words held a hint of frustration. Baker is looking for the elusive breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations. All he has found so far is quibbling about procedures. Would there be a "regional" conference acceptable to Israel, or an "international" conference as the Arabs demand? "The adjective you put before the word conference is not anywhere near as important as whether the parties really want to sit down and hold negotiations for peace," Baker felt compelled to explain.

It is not clear they really do. Even though Israel's most threatening enemy, Iraq, is now in ruins, the central problems between Israel and the Arabs remain. They are so intractable and have such emotional weight as to make serious compromise almost unthinkable for any politician who wants to stay in power. Does Israel have a right to exist? Do the Palestinians have the right to a state? Who does Jerusalem belong to? Such questions provoke fury even in the West. They foster fanaticism in the Middle East.

All the parties know this, but none wants to seem intransigent, so the process becomes an end in itself. Advantage is gained by "movement" and "willingness to compromise" rather than by real concessions. "Procedure is substance," as Dan Shueftan of Hebrew University puts it. The only exception was Camp David. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat skipped the process and went straight to Jerusalem to talk peace. But in the 14 years since, no Arab leader has been strong enough to follow his example and no Israeli government has provided an incentive to try.

Despite the confusing debates about details that characterize every attempt to revive the process, the basic framework for a settlement has been in place for 24 years. After two decadesof fighting to establish itself on the map of the Middle East, Israel's stunning victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967 gave it enough land to bargain for peace with its neighbors. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 laid out the essence of a deal: "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" would be matched by the Arab states' recognition of its "right to live in peace within secure and recognition of its "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." In process parlance: "land for peace."

When Sadat made his move, his reward was the return of virtually all the land Egypt lost in 1967. Jordan, Syria, even the PLO, have embraced 242. It's the heart of the Baker initiative. But Israel's conservative Likud leaders contend they gave at Camp David, and that was enough. The half of Jerusalem they won in the 1967 war is annexed, the Golan Heights are administered as part of Israel while Gaza and the West Bank remain under occupation. There is also a "security zone" carved out of Lebanon. The Israeli doctrine of "strategic depth" implies control of land adjacent to the pre-1967 borders. These territories don't provide a barrier against ballistic missiles, as Saddam Hussein proved with his Scud attacks, but they do keep artillery and infantry at bay. Even Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who concedes a need for "territorial compromise," has no intention of surrendering all of the West Bank. And few Israelis would even consider giving up east Jerusalem.

Then there are the Palestinians. One and a half million live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli formulas aim mainly at reducing Israeli responsibility for them. Hard-liners call for expulsion, liberals for modest territorial concessions. In between are schemes for local autonomy. But no current Israeli leader will consider a state for Palestinians in the occupied territories, nor address the fate of the 4 million in exile. None will talk to the PLO--in part, writes Shueftan, because that "would legitimize the request for a "return" which directly challenges the existence of Israel." In other words, because procedure might actually lead to substance.