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Peace and sandal repair

Last semester, while studying at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, I needed to get my sandals fixed. After a local shoemaker quoted me what I considered a reasonable price, I gave him my sandals. He handed me a ticket with which I could claim them the next day and I went on my merry way, sure that I had gotten a great deal.

Just how naive I had been became apparent the next day, when I collected my sandals, paid my money and sat down to try on my newly-refurbished footwear. A man entered the store and asked the shoemaker how much it would be to repair his sandals. The shoemaker offered him the same price that I had paid.

Without batting an eyelash, the customer told him the price was too high, and offered to pay half of that. The man and the shoemaker bickered for a few minutes, but in the end each got what he wanted: the shoemaker made a bit of money, the customer got his sandals repaired and each was confident that he had come out with the better deal.

The Middle East peace negotiations now taking place in Madrid are much like my experience at the shoemaker. In this particular case, there are many pairs of sandals to be fixed, and no one quite agrees on just how many will suffice (or are necessary) for any one participant, but there are similarities nonetheless.

Like my shoemaker and his customer, the participants have opened by asking for more than they can reasonably hope to get. Israel claims that it will not cede any land to the Arabs, but -- as we saw in 1979, when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in exchange for the Sinai peninsula -- fears of insecure borders become less of an issue when countries have signed a peace treaty. Moreover, the Israelis have said they will not stop new Jewish settlements in the territories, ruffling the Arabs' feathers to no end.

Syria, meanwhile, is demanding the immediate and unconditional return of the Golan Heights, knowing full well that the Israelis will need good reason to return any of it. The Palestinians, whose future status will be determined in no small part by this conference, demand that Israel withdraw from the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as

East Jerusalem, something the Israelis are unlikely to accept. The Lebanese want Israel to withdraw from the security zone in southern Lebanon, but the Israelis have made it clear that they will not pull back until infiltrations across the border stop. The Jordanians have not made any clear demands of the Israelis as of yet, but are standing firm with the rest of the Arab delegates.

Conference commentators, hosts and participants have told us repeatedly that the negotiations will be difficult, and will take time and patience. This is true for any negotiated settlement, but especially so in the Middle East, where screaming at a merchant and walking out of his shop (only to find him chasing you down the street with his "final offer") are part of the game. Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Asad, King Hussein and Yitzhak Shamir have lived in the region long enough to know the difference between a hard-line position and one from which negotiations can begin; once the negotiations get underway, I would not be surprised if the parties make concessions that would have been considered revolutionary and impressive only a short time ago.

If for no other reason, peace negotiations will continue because the participants are afraid of failure. Arabs and Israelis are tired of fighting, tired of pouring so much money into their defense budgets and tired of forcing their children to fight instead of cooperate with each other. There is tremendous pressure for them to succeed: After so much hype, neither Israeli nor Arab leaders can afford to face their constituencies empty-handed. In addition, President George Bush has made it clear that an end to the 40-year conflict will mean increased American support for both Arabs and Israelis.

Negotiations are never easy, and the Madrid peace conference is no exception. But if my experience at the shoemaker is any guide, the bickering and nay-saying that we have seen until now is all part of the game, one the negotiators already understand and that we will see more of in the months to come.


Reuven M. Lerner, a senior in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is editor in chief of The Tech.