TWO years and one war later, the Bush administration is back
where it started: cautiously peddling a Middle East peace plan that
neither Arabs nor Israelis are willing to define or reject.
During his first year as secretary of state, James Baker III
worked long hours to implement an Israeli plan calling for talks on
the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The
effort collapsed over a procedural dispute.
Last week, Mr. Baker was at it again. On a four-nation Middle
East tour he won qualified backing for a plan to convene a regional
conference to launch direct Arab-Israeli peace talks. But now, as
before, intransigence reigns. Despite warm words of support for the
conference idea from Israel and its Arab adversaries, Baker could
fail again to get them past issues of format.
"We have the word `meeting' and that's all; it was hardly worth
the jet fuel," says a US official summarizing the fruits of Baker's
second trip to the region within a month. "We're dealing in nouns.
But it's the adjectives - the qualifiers - that cause things to
The idea of a one-time regional conference, or meeting, to open
negotiations is a compromise between Arab states, which have sought
a full international conference, and Israel, which has favored
direct negotiations to resolve Arab-Israeli disputes, including the
The plan was given a boost when Egyptian leaders told Baker in
Cairo that they were prepared to settle for sponsorship by the US
and Soviet Union in lieu of all five permanent members of the United
Nations Security Council. Syria also appears to have dropped its
demand for a full international conference.
But even this bare definition of how to proceed is mired in
One disagreement concerns the structure of the negotiations.
Israel wants bilateral negotiations with the Arab states and
Palestinian representatives, with the US-Soviet sponsored
"conference," or umbrella, to be temporary and strictly ceremonial.
The Arab states insist on negotiating with Israel collectively, with
the conference to have permanent standing so that the superpowers
can be on hand to help settle intractable disputes.
The two sides are also divided on a key issue of substance.
Arab states say two UN resolutions calling on Israel to exchange
land for peace apply to all territory captured during the 1967
Arab-Israeli war. Israel says the resolutions apply only to the
Sinai Peninsula, relinquished to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David
peace treaty, and not to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan
Another major sticking point is the issue that triggered the
collapse of US mediation efforts last year - namely, how
Palestinians are to be represented at peace talks. The main issue
here is Israel's rejection of Palestinians from East Jerusalem,
which Israel annexed in 1967 but which Palestinians consider part of
the occupied West Bank. …