Madrid, Then and Now

Europeans, Egyptians, Russians and a handful of Israelis are now trying to convince President George W. Bush to bring Israel and the Arabs together for a Madrid Conference 2.

Europeans, Egyptians, Russians and a handful of Israelis are now trying to convince President George W. Bush to bring Israel and the Arabs together for a Madrid Conference 2. They are hoping that the 10th yahrzeit of the conference that opened the door to direct negotiations - through various diplomatic channels, including discussions in multi-lateral committees - will infuse new spirit into what is left of that peace process. Yet Bush is not enthusiastic about re-enacting the conference his father convened in October 1991, the outgrowth of (what then seemed like) the crushing victory of coalition forces over Saddam Hussein.

There is a tendency to attribute this reluctance, like his refusal to shake hands with Yasser Arafat, to the Jewish factor. A first-term president elected on the strength of a few hundred votes has to take into account Arafat's popularity rating in the Jewish retirement villages of Florida. Yet this is not the only, or even the main, reason for the divergence in the policies of Bush Sr. and Jr.

The explanation lies in the differences between two Arab leaders. The first, Hafez Assad, understood that no American president or Congress would abandon Israel to its fate. The second is Yasser Arafat, who pins his hopes on the Chinese and hopes that the Germans will put pressure on the Jews.

The president of Syria answered the call to come to Madrid after finally reaching the conclusion that that which he was unable to pry away by force (Israel's removal from the Golan Heights and the perpetuation of Syria's domination of Lebanon), he would not get by even more force. Hafez Assad suddenly renounced the protracted war of words he had waged for years against Egypt and against any other Arab state that had come to terms with Israel's existence. He turned his back on several of his army commanders who objected to the peace process, and sent his delegates to sit across the table from Yitzhak Shamir's emissaries. Even when things got rough during the simulated peace talks with Yossi Ben-Aharon, or during the bleaker moments of the war of attrition in Lebanon, Assad still made sure not to destroy everything.

But in the end, due to an unexpected chain of events and circumstances that are still not entirely clear, Syria has been left without the Golan, and Israel without peace. Nevertheless, if Assad Jr. would now be willing to renew negotiations where they broke off in Shepherdstown at the end of 1999, the assumption is that he would garner Bush Jr.'s full support.

Arafat wanders the world, telling everyone what a patron of peace he is, and continues to sidestep the decision to end the military uprising in favor of an unarmed popular intifada, as some of his close advisers propose. Instead of cashing in on the achievements of the violent struggle, and having to contend with the cost of ending the intifada in the requisite showdown with Hamas and Tanzim, Arafat keeps on hoping for a big bang that will lead to a coerced settlement and the dispatch of international forces to the territories.

Arafat is facing off against an American administration whose leaders believe that a slap on the face of recalcitrant Third World leaders is more effective than a handshake. However, even in Washington, they understand that it isn't enough to push Arafat into a corner. They have espoused the approach of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, according to which a cessation of the violence would be accompanied by a "diplomatic horizon" and an "economic package." These are supposed to cushion Arafat's path back to the political course. In other words, Arafat knows that if he is willing to take on the Palestinian rejectionist front, the same Bush who now turns his back on him would then demand that Ariel Sharon take on the rejectionists in Israel.

When Hafez Assad announced that Syria was accepting George Bush's invitation to join the Madrid Conference, minister Ariel Sharon claimed that the Likud lost its hold on power that day. Indeed, less than a year later, Bush Sr. forced Shamir to choose between the settlements and improved relations with the United States. Shamir chose the settlements, and lost the reins of government to Yitzhak Rabin.

If Arafat were to make even a 75-percent effort to bring about a cease-fire today, it would be Sharon's turn to choose between settlements and resumed negotiations, between a partnership with Rehavam Ze'evi and a honeymoon with Bush. But as long as Arafat wants to have his cake and eat it too, Israelis and Palestinians will still find themselves crying at cemeteries.