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Middle East: Time for Negotiations

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in Time magazine, April 20, 1987, U.S. Edition.

The idea of an international peace conference to break the diplomatic logjam that has plagued the Middle East for years almost invariably arouses anger. Last week it led to an acrimonious dispute that thoroughly shook the 2 1/2-year-old coalition government in Israel, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir bitterly accusing Shimon Peres, his own Foreign Minister, of displaying a "peace-at-any-price" mentality for endorsing such a parley.

Every U.S. Administration since the mid-1970s has opposed the idea, largely because it would mean participation by the Soviet Union. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were all deeply worried that this would give the Kremlin an irresistible opportunity not only to disrupt the quest for peace but also to play a considerably larger role in the region, something that Moscow has long been seeking to do.

Those remain valid and serious concerns. But in the interest of stimulating discussion of Middle East diplomacy, which has been conspicuously neglected by the U.S. for the past several years, presents the following piece by former President Jimmy Carter, in which he advocates that just such a conference be convened. Carter is fresh from a 16-day tour of the area and meetings with the leaders of five countries -- Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, as well as Israel.

Although optimism might be too strong a word to use, a recent trip through the Middle East renewed my hope that another productive phase in the peace process might soon be possible. Since the founding of the state of Israel, almost 40 years ago, the nation's leaders have always expressed their willingness to negotiate directly with the leaders of any neighboring Arab state. But during the past few years there has been a series of frustrating disappointments, as the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians attempted to orchestrate a reasonable plan to build upon the partial successes of the Camp David accords and the subsequently negotiated peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. With U.S. leaders now standing more aloof from the process than was the case during previous Administrations, no progress has been made. Recently, however, there have been clear moves toward a consensus among Israel's Arab neighbors, and favorable responses from some key government officials in Israel.

One of the primary goals of the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta is to explore every possibility for peace in the Middle East. The Center sponsors conferences, personal visits and scholarly analyses of issues, and also offers representatives of the disputing parties the chance to meet in a nongovernmental and academic environment to discuss their differences in a constructive manner. My most recent visits with Middle East leaders were further steps in these continuing efforts.

My first stop, Algiers, presented a long-awaited opportunity to extend personal thanks to the only country whose leaders were permitted by the Iranians to serve as intermediaries between the U.S. and the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini during the latter part of my term as President. Back then we were able, with the crucial assistance of the Algerians, to secure the release of the American hostages. President Chadli Bendjedid and his ministers now make every effort to nurture good relations among Arab nations, and especially with Iran and Iraq. They might very well be in a good position to act as mediators between those two warring nations when the fanatic commitment of the Ayatullah to the bloody Persian Gulf war is ended.

In Egypt I found a surprising democratization of the country's political processes, with President Hosni Mubarak pressing forward with reforms; during my visit, his associates and the multiple opposition forces were also marshaling their strength for the April 6 elections. Egypt's news media have been given unprecedented freedom, and in my wide-ranging discussions I found uniform concern about the nation's economic plight and strong and healthy public and private assessments of Mubarak's administration. Although one private opinion poll shows that more than 80% of the people approve the peace treaty with Israel, many Egyptians feel that without the restraints of this treaty the tragic Israeli invasions of Lebanon would have been much more unlikely.

Despite this concern, there is almost unanimous commitment to the idea of an international peace conference to be sponsored by the United Nations and attended by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and by all parties to the Middle East dispute. There are few issues that remain to be resolved between Egypt and Israel, and the Egyptians seem prepared to participate as much or as little as is necessary to ensure the success of such conference. They were unanimously pleased with the recent visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, assessing it as a good indication that Israel might be ready to join in the proposed peace effort.

Although I was traveling as a private citizen, my discussions in Damascus with President Hafez Assad took on something of a semiofficial nature because we have not had an American Ambassador in Syria since October. We covered a wide range of issues, some of them of a politically sensitive nature. Assad authorized me to state that he supported the concept of an international peace conference, that Syria would be pleased to attend and that it was clear that many outstanding questions would have to be negotiated in direct talks between Israel and the particular Arab nation involved. I found him to be adequately flexible concerning the format and possible procedures to be followed. This was quite a change from Assad's attitude during my previous discussions with him.

Embarrassed by revelations of terrorist acts originating in his own country, Assad has called for a select group of statesmen to define the difference between "terrorism" and "national liberation," and for members of the U.N. to agree on how to prevent or punish terrorist acts. Assad mentioned the American Revolution of two centuries ago, activities of Menachem Begin's Irgun organization in Palestine against the British, the Algerian revolution against France, and current attacks of the Amal against Israeli soldiers in Southern Lebanon as examples of "national liberation." He stated that the hijacking of a commercial airplane, the taking of any civilian hostages or deliberate acts of violence against noncombatants might be defined as terrorism and should be punished accordingly. With the eyes of the world focused on Syria, it seems possible that a tight rein will be kept on those Palestinians and Iranians in the country who might desire to commit acts of terrorism in the near future.

Both Assad and Mubarak seem willing to permit King Hussein to be the primary spokesman in arranging for the prospective international peace conference. I found the Jordanians to be eager to commence this effort, carefully juggling their complicated relationships with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, other Arab leaders, the U.S. and Israel. Having been the prime mover in efforts to resume the peace effort for the past five years, Hussein has been wounded by deep cuts in badly needed economic aid from Washington and by the refusal of the U.S. Congress to approve justifiable military requests for the defense of Jordanian territory. He pointed out that the U.S. had been more generous in recent weapons sales to the Ayatullah Khomeini than to him. So far, the Jordanians have rejected attractive arms-sale offers from Moscow, realizing that with advanced weapons would come a number of Soviet military "advisers."

During extensive meetings with a number of Palestinian leaders from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, I found them to be deeply embittered about the lack of progress in redressing their grievances, and concerned about increasing militancy among their young people. College-age students, never having known anything other than life under military occupation, now find their universities closed at least half the time because of demonstrations against Israeli troops. Their enforced idleness brings on more militant acts, creating a never-ending vicious cycle. The Palestinians discount King Hussein's efforts to improve their living conditions as doomed to failure because of inadequate funding and Israeli impediments. They are disillusioned with their leaders both within and outside the occupied territories, but even in private conversations they express overwhelming support for the P.L.O. leadership as their only legitimate spokesmen. Palestinians fear that some Arabs and some Israelis might never be willing to grant them their basic human rights.

Israeli government officials are sharply divided over the concept of an international peace conference. Labor Party leaders, including Foreign Minister Peres, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Minister without Portfolio Ezer Weizman and former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, have endorsed the idea, but Likud leaders have so far rejected the proposals and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has recently renewed his commitment not to withdraw from any portion of the occupied territories. It may be necessary ultimately for the Israeli public to resolve these differences through early national elections.

The "international" aspect of the conference is crucial and, I believe, can be quite beneficial. During early plenum meetings, all the interested parties -- Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinians and perhaps Lebanon -- would be given an adequate opportunity to state their cases in the most effective manner. With the eyes of the world focused on them, it is possible that the presentations would be less vituperative and more constructive than in a forum like the U.N. General Assembly. Direct talks to resolve specific differences would be necessary, and mutually acceptable mediators would be helpful in each of these bilateral negotiations. Deadlocks could be referred to the plenum group under prearranged conditions for further discussion, but in no case could this group of other nations impose its collective will on any of the directly involved parties. From 1973 until Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, it was presumed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be co-chairmen of an international peace conference. Now, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Soviet Union would play a similar but lesser role. There would be other major roles for the larger group to play. Substantial funding will be necessary to implement some of the agreements that might be forthcoming, and the international community would have to make these pledges. Also, guarantees of compliance with negotiated agreements might be given by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, though not perhaps by the U.N. itself.

There is not yet any real basis for optimism, but as stated before there are some reasons for hope. Although the Camp David process has been much maligned by those who were not participants, the Arabs at least have seen in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that it is possible to negotiate successfully with Israel and to conclude an agreement that can bring peace and other substantial benefits to both nations. More importantly, among all nations and groups the people want peace, despite their leaders' difficulty in taking the next necessary steps. With a carefully orchestrated peace initiative and with some of the boldness and political courage exhibited by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin more than eight years ago, today's leaders can still be successful in bringing an end to the bloodshed and injustices that have for too long afflicted the people of the Holy Land.

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