A Wider Mideast Peace May No Longer Be A Dream

The signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord on Sept. 5 grabbed the world's headlines. But two little-noticed events could prove as important for laying the basis of a wider peace settlement. Syria recently warned radical Palestinian groups sheltering in Damascus that their warrior days were over. Jordan's King Abdullah followed suit by cracking down on Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization.

Indeed, the Clinton Administration and some Israelis believe a process has now started that could lead to a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and possibly Syria too. Certainly, there's movement in negotiations that have been stalled for years.

ELUSIVE GOALS. The election of Ehud Barak as Prime Minister of Israel is a key to that. His constructive approach toward the Arab countries is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who antagonized all of them. Analysts also think that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, 70, and Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, who is at least 68, are feeling pressure to wrap up deals with Israel before they retire or die.

Yet a rocky road lies ahead. As Syrian critics were quick to point out, Barak and Arafat merely agreed to let a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank--worked out a year ago--go ahead. And the Israelis and Palestinians, prodded by the U.S., have set ambitious targets. They agreed to begin talks immediately, aimed at a final agreement by September, 2000--to give Bill Clinton one last triumph.

The goal may prove elusive because the most divisive issues have been put off until then. The Israelis and Palestinians have to agree, for instance, on borders between Israel and a still undeclared Palestinian state. Also, they have to resolve Palestinians' longing to have Jerusalem as their capital and Israelis' insistence that they won't share rule of the Holy City. Other charged issues concern the eventual return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In the past, it has been easy for Palestinian opponents of peace to halt talks with car bombs. While the Israelis expect Arafat to control such malcontents, it may prove impossible for him to rein in all who feel that the squalid Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank and Gaza is a betrayal.

That doesn't mean an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is impossible. Outlines of possible compromises already exist. In 1996, an unofficial working party of Israelis and Palestinians suggested that the Palestinian capital be at Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem. Also, Israel has effectively acknowledged that the 200,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have a special status.

With fewer tangled human issues involved, it might be easier for the Israelis to reach a deal with the Syrians. What divides them are mostly questions of timing and security arrangements to permit an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Any hope of success would depend on the U.S. brokering a deal that would include billions of dollars in aid. Dan Halperin, a former Israeli economic representative in Washington, says an Israeli-Syrian accord would cost $5 billion to $10 billion--mostly for Israeli security outlays.

Because the Israelis and Palestinians live in such close proximity, building trust and momentum is the key to establishing a real peace. If day-to-day relations between the two peoples on the ground improve, new possibilities may open for the negotiators. But this may require considerably longer than Bill Clinton has left in office.

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