MIDEAST Talking at Last: It took eight months of dogged shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. But he finally put together the jigsaw puzzle that had baffled his predecessors and saw Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians sit at the same negotiating table for the first time. The historic Mideast peace conference, opening in Madrid in October, spawned more sessions in December in Washington. There were no agreements except to meet again in the new year. But the talks offered hope that the Gordian knot of Israeli-Arab hostilities might be cut after four decades.
Free at Last: A seven-year nightmare ended Dec. 4 when Muslim radicals released journalist Terry A. Anderson, the last American hostage held in Lebanon. Since 1984, Islamic Jihad and other underground groups had kidnaped 17 Americans. Fourteen were freed or escaped; three were slain.
The final flurry of hostage releases was brokered largely by Damascus and the United Nations. Besides Anderson, Edward A. Tracy, Jesse Turner, Thomas M. Sutherland, Joseph J. Cicippio and Alann Steen were freed, beginning in August. At year's end, two West Germans were the only Western captives left in Lebanon.
The last week of 1991 brought a grim aftermath: The bodies of CIA station chief William Buckley and Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, Americans killed by their kidnapers, were dumped in Beirut.
Israel's Scuds and Settlers: For Israelis, the year began with threats to retaliate harshly if Iraq attacked during the Gulf War. But when the Iraqi Scuds hit Israeli cities, Yitzhak Shamir's government, at the behest of the Bush Administration, did not strike back. The United States rushed Patriot antimissile batteries to Israel and staffed them with U.S crews--the first such American military presence in Israel's history. Stepped up Israeli construction in the occupied territories enraged the Bush Administration, which threatened to curtail new foreign aid if the program persisted. Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, interrupted during the 1967 Mideast War, were formally re-established. But with the Gulf War and Israel's inability to provide jobs and housing, only about 140,000 Soviet emigres arrived by year's end--down more than a third from earlier predictions. Throughout the year, Palestinian extremists continued their \o7 intifada\f7 , ambushing civilian cars and military traffic in the West Bank, further altering the face of the Arab uprising--once a battle of stones, now increasingly one of guns in the shadows.
Arafat Under Siege: In a disastrous error for Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO chairman supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, alienating the wealthy Gulf nations that had helped finance the PLO. After the war, Kuwait, which had employed tens of thousands of Palestinians, accused them of sabotage and expelled them in droves amid international criticism that vengeful Kuwaitis were engaging in a campaign of anti-Palestinian human rights violations.
Progress in Lebanon: The newly reconstituted Lebanese army successfully disarmed the militias that once ruled Lebanon almost block by block and declared the end of the country's 15-year-long civil war. Among the militias was PLO Chairman Arafat's Fatah faction in the south, which gave up its heavy weapons after brief resistance in July. The only group still holding out was the radical Muslim Hezbollah, which insisted it is not a militia but a liberation force aimed at Israel. A devastating car bomb that killed 30 in a Beirut slum district on Dec. 30 served as a reminder that, formal peace declarations aside, violence remains near at hand.
Etc.: December was notable for balloting that cleared the way for the Arab world's first freely elected Muslim fundamentalist government. The Islamic Salvation Front won nearly half the seats in Algeria's National Assembly and appeared well on its way to gaining control in second round voting scheduled for this week. The collapse of the Soviet Union further devastated secular state economies like those of Syria and Iraq, exacerbating inter-Arab divisions left by the Gulf War. Jordan, trapped between Iraq and Israel, was economically crushed by the loss of Iraqi markets during the war and the postwar trade embargo. Other economic pressures included Palestinians returning from Kuwait and a continuing war-related tiff with the Saudis, who had once supplied the bulk of Jordanian oil and now send none. King Hussein's fence-sitting during the war also lost him friends in Washington. By contrast, Syria curried favor in the West, even as it remained on the State Department's list of countries harboring terrorists. It gained support in the Administration for its help in the Gulf War, its brokering of hostage releases and its joining in the Mideast peace talks.