Israel and Syria

June 26, 1991

Lebanon no longer stands between them. The PLO is suddenly if temporarily negligible. Iraq is reduced and out of the way. Jordan is a docile follower of the wind. Israel and Syria have drawn much closer together. Whether in peace or in war is for them to work out.

Syria looms larger in Arab counsels after the gulf war, becoming the single Arab state that can make peace talks occur or not. Syria and Israel both agree to negotiations, each on terms that it is assured the other will refuse. They share a common understanding that the United Nations is stacked against Israel and would add weight leaning on Israel for concessions. This understanding may be obsolete, which Israel acknowledged by agreeing that the European Community, which it previously put in the same basket as the United Nations, might play a useful role.

In fact, while both Israel and Syria brandished negative conditions, both have made positive statements that deserve notice. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called the West Bank and Gaza negotiable. Egypt called that a step in the right direction. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's continued calls for peace talks is evidence of potential willingness to accept Israel's permanent existence.

The optimism in the early days of the gulf coalition flowed from Syria's new cooperation and from Saudi Arabia's impatience with instability in the region. Now that the war recedes in memory and the demagogy of Iraq's Saddam Hussein is confined to a smaller stage, the optimism dims. Mr. Assad may not have become a new man after all. The Saudis have retreated to a shy unwillingness to be seen with Israel. Hearts and minds have changed less than was first hoped.

Nonetheless, President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have done nobly in the quest for peace and should continue. More pressure should be put on Saudi Arabia to encourage peace on the part of its clients. The West should constantly remind Syria that it has no alternative benefactors. Constant dialogue with Mr. Shamir and his cabinet allies and rivals should reduce Israel's procedural differences with Syria.

The question is not whether Israel and Syria are going to live side by side, but the mode by which they will do so. As a buffer, Lebanon no longer exists. The clearer the other two see that, the better the chances of accommodation.

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