Foreign ministers representing the Arab delegations taking part in the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks are scheduled to meet in Damascus today and Saturday to decide whether Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians should resume negotiations with Israel next Tuesday in Washington. The talks were suspended last December after Israel deported about 400 Palestinians it accused of supporting the virulently anti-Israel Hamas movement. Opposing any significant compromises, rejectionists on both sides have no interest in seeing the talks succeed. But Israel is ready to reopen talks, and the signs are that mainstream Palestinians are as well. Almost certainly the three participating Arab states will follow the Palestinian lead.
The Palestinian decision seems to have been helped along by some wise if implicit concessions and gestures made by Israel. Prime Minister Yitz- hak Rabin's government, for example, will no longer oppose a longstanding Palestinian demand for a joint monitoring committee to investigate human rights violations in the disputed territories. Israel also has indicated it will boost investment in the territories aimed to create more jobs for Arabs. And, in a major break with past Israeli policy, Rabin says he's ready to accept East Jerusalem resident Faisal Husseini as a recognized leader of the Palestinian negotiating team.
All that's very helpful. In his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this week Rabin restated Israel's fundamental position. While Israel will not agree to return to its 1967 borders, which were a security nightmare, it is prepared to negotiate a trade of land for peace. Israel, he said again, has no interest in annexing the nearly 2 million Palestinians who passed under its control in 1967. Rabin remains committed to an early interim agreement to give these Palestinians considerably more control over their own lives.
Mubarak is among those Arab leaders who worry aloud that the Palestinians risk losing a perhaps unrepeatable opportunity if they don't re-enter the talks. Right now it appears the talks will reconvene on schedule, though of course nothing, including rational choice, can ever be taken for granted in the Middle East. Once the talks again get under way all parties should agree to keep them going on a continuous basis, in place of the start-and-stop approach of the last 18 months. Time has become crucial, and it's now clear that any time lost to long interruptions only serves the cause of the anti-compromise rejectionists on both sides.