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Trading Land for Peace

May 13, 1987

Senior members of Israel's coalition government are now bitterly debating the ostensible issue of whether the country should take part in an international peace conference. The real question that divides cabinet and country, though, has little to do with the mechanics of the peacemaking process. The real question is whether, under an acceptable formula, Israel is prepared to give up control over significant parts of the territory it occupied during the Six Day War of 1967 in exchange for the chance of an historic transformation in relations with its Arab neighbors.

The Labor alignment, one major coalition partner, is ready to trade territory for peace, particularly on the West Bank provided that change does not produce an independent Palestinian state. The Likud bloc, the other major partner, says no to such a swap. These opposed views embody the fundamental hope and fear of Israelis. The hope is that the 40-year-long state of war can be ended on the basis of territorial compromise. The fear is that if Israel yields some of its strategic depth and control it would be inviting future Arab attack.

A leaked secret agreement between Jordan, the United States and Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, defines the terms of any peace conference. It would be under the auspices of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China--but their role would be only ceremonial. This reflects the felt need of Jordan's King Hussein, who wants international protection if he negotiates the West Bank's future without the direct involvement of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The real work would be done in bilateral negotiations between Israel and Jordan and, if they took part, Syria and Lebanon. Agreement in one set of talks would not depend on agreement in any other.

Peres says he is ready to bring down the government on this issue, though that assumes support from a still uncertain parliamentary majority. Even if new elections were held that endorsed Israel's participation in a peace conference, there is no guarantee that the Soviet Union would settle for only a token role or that its clients, Syria and the PLO, would not do their best to sabotage its results.

Despite these considerable doubts, Israel would do well to pursue this issue to a conclusion. At some point, perhaps a distant point, a chance for peace based on territorial compromise may emerge. Israel's political hand would be immeasurably strengthened if the principle of trading land for peace had already been shown to have clear popular support.

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