Israeli intransigence, which has traditionally been responsible for scuttling efforts to resolve Middle East problems, is at it again. For the second year in a row, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is poised to kill off a peace conference initiative.
In a letter to President Bush, Shamir made it clear that Israel is offering no concessions on its objections to the conference format proposed by the Americans.Despite four months of haggling and four visits to the Middle East since the Persian Gulf war ended, Secretary of State James Baker has failed to get the Arabs and the Israelis any closer to the negotiating table.
If Syria also rejects the latest Bush proposal for compromise, U.S. officials will have to reassess their strategy. None of the options are pleasing.
The United States could send Baker back for a fifth and final try; it could relinquish any further U.S. role and hand the problems back to the Arabs and the Israelis; it could threaten to withdraw financial support from Israel; or it could join hands with the Soviets in scheduling peace talks, issue invitations, and just wait to see who shows up.
The final option is risky because it would suggest the use of pressure instead of persuasion. It would probably make Shamir even less likely to cooperate.
Threatening to cut the financial support on which Israel depends also has its drawbacks. If carried out, it could leave Israel badly weakened in the face of its enemies, opening a whole new array of problems, none of them pleasant. In any event, Congress is unlikely to drastically slash aid. Support for Israel runs too deep in the United States for Congress to seriously consider such a step.
That leaves trying to persuade Israel as the only practical approach. Shamir's major objection to a role for the United Nations in any peace conference reflects a deep-seated suspicion of the world organization.
Resolutions in both the General Assembly and the Security Council are sprinkled with condemnations of Israel, including one that equates Zionism with racism and is viewed in Israel as an expression of lasting hostility to the Jewish state.
Bush's assurance that the United Nations would play only an observer's role did nothing to reduce the suspicion that once in the door U.N. influence would come down heavily on the side of the Arabs.
Israelis also fear that they may be forced to give up occupied land in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, all of which it won in the 1967 Middle East War. The U.N. favors Israel giving up those territories, and the U.S., Soviet and European governments all subscribe to some version of a land-for-peace formula.
All of this underlines the complexity of Middle East problems which will not be resolved easily or quickly under any formula.
If the Bush administration fails this time, Bush and Baker still deserve plaudits for a vigilant effort. Nevertheless, it still seems unfortunate that whenever an agreement is not forthcoming that the culprit always seems to be Israel.
At the moment, it seems as if Israel is more willing to cling to its fears - which unquestionably are based in reality - and to depend on its military might, rather than risk even sitting down at a peace conference.