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The Right Man Has Arrived at the Right Time in Mideast : Negotiations: Rabin and Bush have a chance not given many leaders: to make a real difference on the road to peace in a brief period of time.

August 02, 1992|Henry A. Kissinger | Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times

NEW YORK — In a few days, President George Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will be meeting at a moment of rare opportunity for progress toward peace in the Middle East. Secretary James A. Baker III's patient and thoughtful diplomacy has created the framework.

The collapse of Soviet power and the defeat of Iraq have reduced, if not eliminated, a confrontational option for radical Arab states. The moderate Arab governments, disillusioned by Palestinian conduct during the Kuwait crisis, are no longer inclined to support extreme demands. The Israeli elections have produced a leader capable of making the necessary decisions.

Rabin, a distinguished military leader, understands Israel's essential security requirements. He is relentless in separating the chaff from what is essential. These qualities will now stand him in good stead, for the protagonists need to disenthrall themselves from the attitudes that have produced the impasse.

For nearly half a century, Palestinians have hitched their policy to the hope that they would be able to generate a combination of international and Arab pressures to destroy the state of Israel. For international pressures, they counted largely on the Soviet Union; for Arab pressures, they relied on Egypt, Syria or Iraq. And since the Palestinians have had a veto over Arab peace plans, these plans have shared preconditions Israel could only fulfill by giving up its essence.

Faced with these attitudes, Israel adopted procrastination as the best strategy. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, noted in his diary a remark by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban: "An armistice is sufficient for us. If we chase after peace, the Arabs will demand of us a price--borders or refugees or both."

The way the peace process evolved seemed to confirm this judgment. In 1947, Israel's Arab neighbors went to war rather than accept the Jewish state. In the '50s and '60s, some began to move toward accepting the '47 frontiers but not those that existed. In the '70s and '80s, the United States and some moderate Arab regimes, though not the Palestine Liberation Organization, accepted the '67 frontiers but once again balked at those that existed.

In the face of these constantly improving offers, Israel had nothing to lose and much to gain from procrastination. It emphasized procedure, especially direct talks at the head-of-government level. But there was no interlocutor available for the Palestinian side, an Arab summit having assigned that role to the PLO, with which Israel refused to negotiate. Israel also developed an exalted definition of the word peace , endowing it with an apocalyptic and comprehensive quality incapable of being achieved in a single negotiation. All this has doomed negotiations about Palestine.

Both sides now face a rare window of opportunity--or maybe even of necessity. The Palestinians must realize that Israel is here to stay. Israel has learned--in the hard school of U.S. pressure--that a deadlock for which it can be blamed courts moral, political and economic isolation.

A comprehensive agreement is not negotiable at this stage. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can decide on final frontiers. They cannot agree on the future of Jerusalem. Israel is not ready to accept a fully sovereign Palestinian state; the Palestinians cannot make a final settlement in the absence of a sovereign state.

But peaceful coexistence is attainable and should prove negotiable. Tranquility will not come to the Middle East on the basis of unenforceable legal documents. The peoples of the region will be able to breathe easier only when Israelis and Palestinians have learned to live together in dignity on a day-to-day basis.

Their mutual opportunity is to negotiate an interim agreement dedicated to learning to live together, and to put off a final settlement until that possibility has been tested. Toward that end, Israel will have to grant genuine self-government to the largest possible area of the West Bank in keeping with reasonable security objectives. For the Palestinians, it implies settling for something less than full sovereignty. They need to understand that once a self-governing entity exists, further evolution is inevitable. Israel's risk with limited sovereignty is much greater than that of the Palestinians; it should be taken as Israel's contribution to blunt animosities and grievances. In such a negotiation, the focus would shift from land for peace to land for time--time to see whether patterns of coexistence can be developed.

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