A Moment Of Truth?

The moment Yitzhak Shamir dreaded had arrived: President Hafez Assad of Syria agreed to U.S. proposals for a Mideast peace conference. His enemy's concession confronted the Israeli prime minister with a dilemma: how to avoid snubbing his American patrons without setting his country on the road to territorial compromises. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat was no less flustered. Isolated by his support for Saddam Hussein in the gulf war, he had to keep a hand in the conference stop it-and thus avert total irrelevance.

Shamir and Arafat converged on the same answer to their different quandaries: East Jerusalem. Shamir maintains that a conference including Palestinian representatives from East Jerusalem would violate Israel's claim to all of the city. He was thinking of objecting to the conference on that ground when, NEWSWEEK has learned, Israeli intelligence intercepts of Arab telephone and fax transmissions came in: Arafat had ordered West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian leaders to insist on the right of East Jerusalemites to be at the conference. Shamir promptly demanded a U.S. guarantee no East Jerusalem Palestinians would attend.

A moment of truth was in the wings -for the United States most of all. If pressure on Israel was high, the real question was how Washington would respond if Shamir was finally immovable. Assad was the only player who seemed certain to avoid blame if the conference Secretary of State James Baker wants so badly eventually falls through. "For almost 20 years we have been saying we want peace," he averred last week in an interview with NEWSWEEK and The Washington Post (page 20). "It's now up to the Israelis." Assad has forced Washington to face a dilemma which was latent in the United States' gulf war coalition against Saddam Hussein. Both Israel and the Arab countries believe the United States owes them favors in return for their wartime help. Israel wants massive American financial help in resettling Soviet Jews; the Arabs want the United States to push getting Israel into a land-for-peace deal. Assad has now obliged Washington to contemplate using the aid lever on Israel.

For now, both Israelis and Palestinians claim the United States supports their positions. Israeli officials insist Baker promised them virtual veto power over a Palestinian delegation. Prospective delegate Faisal Husseini, himself from East Jerusalem, counters that Baker didn't tell him Washington opposed the presence of East Jerusalem Palestinians. Israeli and U.S. officials told NEWSWEEK i t was unlikely the issue would be settled before this week's U.S.-Soviet summit.

While President Bush and Baker think the time is ripe for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are really ready. Now that Iraq is largely disarmed, the PLO is in disarray and Syria is cut off from Soviet largesse, Shamir sees no reason to make concessions to Arab governments he regards as inherently unreliable-and which still refuse even to acknowledge in public Israel's right to exist. Shamir has never been in a stronger political position at home. As long as the pro-Israel lobby maintains its grip on the U.S. Congress, Shamir may weather Bush administration threats of a cut in aid. "[Shamir] is making every effort to appear all sweet reasonableness-without saying yes," said a State Department official.

But the Bush administration argues that it is in Israel's interest to deal from strength. In a private meeting with Shamir last week Baker gave a detailed briefing on every aspect of Assad's letter to Bush, in which Assad agreed to the U.S. formula for a conference. Though Assad refused to say so to NEWSWEEK, Baker told Shamir the Syrian is privately agreeing to direct talks with Israel--tantamount to recognition.

If Shamir feels too strong to deal, Arafat feels too weak. Last week he said Baker's "main goal is to normalize relations between Arabs and Israelis ... [with] nothing for the Palestinians." The PLO has its own hard-liners. "The present leadership of the Arab world ... are stooges to the Americans," says Mounir Makdah, a commander in Arafat's Lebanon-based Fatah army. Recalling Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, killed in 1981 for making peace with Israel, Makdah added: "No Arab leader is immortal." Still, U.S. officials say the PLO may have no choice but to accept a compromise. Says a senior U.S. official: "The Arabs and Palestinians have to understand that this is an issue that, in the first stages, they have got to be mature about."

When a conference does begin, it's unclear what there is to discuss. Jerusalem refuses to halt settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. It further insists it will not negotiate about the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. Washington is unworried. "That's his opening bid, and it may be his closing bid, but Shamir probably won't be the prime minister who concludes these negotiations, " said a U.S. official. "It will be enough just to get him there, and then let nature and politics take their course." Talks are certain to be lengthy and bitter-and that's a best-case scenario. It assumes the conferees actually make it to the table.