Back to Work in the Middle East

August 05, 1993

Syria holds the key to Arab peace with Israel. If Syria traded peace for Golan, the rug would be pulled out from those who wish to continue war. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's Middle East shuttle diplomacy is seeking no less than that.

While using the same Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, that his predecessor James A. Baker III brought to the State Department, Mr. Christopher has shunned Mr. Baker's studied detachment. He is not merely bringing the parties together and seeking influence behind the scenes, he is aggressively and publicly involved and putting U.S. proposals forward.

Mr. Christopher is trying to turn a setback for peace -- the Hezbollah murders of Israelis and subsequent Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon -- into momentum toward it. At first appearance, he has achieved something.

Washington did not merely broker a tacit agreement among all parties that Hezbollah will restrict its potshots at Israelis to the "security zone" of southern Lebanon. Mr. Christopher turned that into a back-channel between Jerusalem and Damascus dealing with fundamental issues between Israel and Syria, between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Hafez el-Assad. This was logical. Israel's massive attack had been a message to the latter in any case -- a message that Syria can turn off the Hezbollah attacks if it wishes.

Whether Syria will do that remains problematic. In all likelihood, Mr. Assad will allow Hezbollah to maintain readiness while he explores the temptation to make peace with Israel along the lines that Egypt did. Although Hezbollah terrorists really do believe in warring for the extinction of Israel, they are pawns of larger forces, the governments of Syria and Iran, which can shut them down.

The mass evacuations of southern Lebanon cause by Israeli bombs might have depressed the readiness for peace among PLO and Arab governments for the moment. But it also strengthened Mr. Rabin against the hawkish opposition in Israel and made it easier for him to trade land for peace with Syria or talk openly with the PLO.

Give Mr. Christopher credit. He has turned a loss into an opportunity. That's the sort of bargaining ability that Arab leaders, at their ablest, practice and therefore respect.

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