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Needed: Middle East Peace Talks

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed originally appeared in The New York Times, Jan. 2, 1991.

"Linked' or not, there is no way to separate the crisis in the Persian Gulf from the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Following a settlement with Iraq, through either peace or war, even greater pressure will emerge within the international community to convene a peace conference. United Nations resolutions on the Middle East, from four decades ago to the present, have been given a new vitality and will not go away again.

Now is a propitious time for Israel to come forward with a genuine peace initiative, and President Bush and congressional leaders should do everything possible to encourage such a move. Present difficulties are formidable, but real progress is possible.

Before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel rejected talks with a Palestinian delegation, the Israeli government fell, and intifada violence escalated.

Since then, the alignment of Syrian and other Arab forces with the U.S. against Iraq, economic calamity for Jordanians and Palestinians, the Temple Mount tragedy and massive immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel are all increasing friction in the occupied territories.

Historically in the Middle East, stalemates or localized tensions have tended to deteriorate into broader conflict.

Having long been involved in the peace process, I realize how important it is that setbacks not deter exploration for new ideas and opportunities. I was distressed when Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, based upon his previous statements and his first speeches as Israel's leader.

However, it was his willingness to negotiate with President Anwar Sadat at Camp David that made the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty possible. In my meetings last year with Likud leaders in Israel, they re-emphasized their opposition to an international conference, claiming that the United Nations and the Soviet Union would always support Arab positions.

This concern about Soviet attitudes has been mitigated by the remarkable emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel and resulting diplomatic exchanges between the two nations. Although the subtle differences are significant, Arab and Israeli leaders actually have a lot in common.

While calling for mutual security, peace and economic interests in the region to be addressed, Israelis have insisted on bilateral negotiations with Arab neighbors instead of with a phalanx of adversaries.

Among Palestinian leaders and those in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, I have found uniform support for a peace conference, and willingness under its auspices for direct talks with Israel.

President Hafez al Assad of Syria confirmed that, under such conditions, he is willing to negotiate directly with Israel to resolve the Golan Heights dispute. Both Israeli and Arab leaders have now called for a regional conference to reduce arsenals of mass destruction.

Another surprise development in the area has been encouraging. In Lebanon, militia groups have withdrawn from Beirut and are finally negotiating with each other.

A viable central government is evolving with more representative participation. A carefully crafted peace conference under the bilateral sponsorship of the United States and the Soviet Union -- if not the United Nations -- could overcome Israelis' objections about inherent bias against them.

President Mikhail Gorbachev has assured me that this would be acceptable, and that the Soviets would not try to impose solutions or veto agreements reached by the Middle East negotiators in their direct talks.

The principles of the Camp David Accords can provide a framework on which the opposing forces might focus their efforts.

Laboriously negotiated and adopted by an overwhelming vote in the Israeli Knesset, its basic premises have subsequently been approved, with only slight variations, in various Arab statements and in President Ronald Reagan's speech of September 1982. This was quickly accepted by King Hussein of Jordan.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and others who originally rejected these agreements now claim willingness to accept them as a general basis for peace initiatives. There has to be good faith on both sides. Tragically, the PLO charter remains intact in its call for the destruction of Israel.

Likud leaders, while professing support for Camp David, reject some of its crucial tenets and those of U.N. Resolution 242, apparently not yet willing to negotiate with representative Palestinians or to relinquish control over any areas taken in the 1967 war. Differences over specific Camp David tenets are already well defined.

This is what peace talks are all about: to resolve such disputes and to modify adamant positions of adversaries. There is no doubt that the people of the region want peace.

This brings us to the fundamental question: Will the Middle East leaders respond to the will of their people? An international conference may be the only chance.

Jimmy Carter, the former president, is founder and chairman of The Carter Center in Atlanta, which is devoted to a better understanding of national and international events. This column was written for the New York Times.

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