The Mideast Could Blow Up In Clinton's Face

It could prove to be a dangerous flashpoint in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. On Mar. 26, President Clinton failed at a Geneva summit to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad to restart peace talks with Israel. That opens the way to potential violence as Israel prepares its unilateral withdrawal from Syrian-backed Lebanon by July. And it leaves the Labor government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak on shaky ground.

Chances of pulling off a comprehensive peace deal in the Middle East this year are growing slimmer by the day. The Clinton Administration team cheered last May when Barak was elected Prime Minister. Barak was bent on improving relations with his Arab neighbors, who had been alienated by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. But while Barak has formed a working relationship with Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat, he has failed to make much progress with the Syrians. The two sides are stuck on the issues of Israeli security needs and control of the Sea of Galilee, which Israel regards as a crucial water resource.

FRACTIOUS. The peace process is suffering not just from Assad's intransigence but also from Barak's weakness at home. He is hostage to the whims of a six-party coalition. They range from the secular Meretz party to Yisrael B'Aliya, the Russian immigrant party, to the ultrareligious Shas party. The most disputatious is Shas, which threatens to leave the government if its demands on religious issues aren't met.

The instability of the coalition makes it next to impossible for Barak to offer further concessions to Assad. The Syrian leader wants an open declaration that Israel is prepared to retreat from the occupied Golan Heights and return to the borders that existed before the Six Day War of June, 1967. But in Israel, opposition is growing to a pullout from the Golan. And the Israeli public, accustomed to more moderate leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is wary of Assad, who has shown a lack of understanding for the confidence-building measures needed to win their support. "The political instability has left Barak with little room to devise creative solutions to break the impasse with Syria," says Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern & African Studies.

The lack of an agreement with Syria has the U.S. concerned that Barak's plan to withdraw from Lebanon could backfire. The pro-Iranian Hezbollah says it plans to continue its attacks on Israel. While talks were in progress, a key Israeli demand was that Syria rein in Lebanon's pro-Iranian militia. If Syria were to do so, it could demand more concessions on the Golan in return. But Damascus doesn't seem interested in curbing the militia.

For its part, Israel has made it clear that any attacks on its northern border after it withdraws will be met with swift reprisals. Already last February, Israel launched an intense bombing raid against Lebanese targets in response to a marked increase in Hezbollah attacks against Israeli soldiers. The worry is that Israel and Syria, which has 30,000 troops in Lebanon, could be drawn into a larger conflict.

Tension will mount as the July deadline nears. In fact, a source near the Israeli Prime Minister says the pullout may even be sped up. To hasten a breakthrough, the U.S. wants Egypt's Mubarak to intervene with Assad. The hope is that Assad will realize that he'll lose leverage over Barak on the Golan once Israel quits Lebanon. Barring that, Clinton may end his term with a new Mideast crisis raging.