The beginning of the Middle East peace conference in Madrid marks a critical moment in the decades-long conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Face-to-face talks are a much needed sign of hope, but the peace process is fragile. The United States, the Soviet Union, Europeans, and others must nurture it by providing structure, framing issues, and clarifying options.
Painstaking diplomatic initiatives have brought the various parties to this pivotal juncture. For their part, the Palestinians have already made numerous compromises. Both the Palestine National Council and the West Bank and Gaza leaders who have met repeatedly with Secretary of State James Baker have made clear their willingness to participate with Jordan. They have yielded reluctantly to Israel's insistence that the participants have no visible ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The Palestinians have sought assurances from the United States on three key points. First, they want to know that the conference will affirm their right of self-determination, or at least an initial commitment to uphold Palestinian political rights.
Second, they want clear understandings on the applicability of U.N. Resolution 242, the now-famous 1967 resolution setting forth the "land for peace" formula. The Palestinians formally accepted Res. 242 as a basis for negotiation in November 1988, when the United States demanded it as a precondition for talks with the PLO. Palestinians now want to know that the peace conference will examine and explore proposals for territorial compromise.
Third, the Palestinians want assurances that the conference will include consideration of the status of Jerusalem, perhaps the most sensitive and potentially divisive issue for all parties to the conflict.