Beyond the White House Lawn

September 15, 1993

Nothing illustrated Israel's breakout from isolation by the Arab world better than what happened the day after Israel and the PLO signed agreements to recognize each other. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stopped off to see King Hassan of Morocco. Israel and Jordan signed an agenda for negotiations, which is the equivalent of the agreement on principles with the PLO.

As a breakthrough, each of these is more apparent than real. Morocco tacitly accepted Israel for years. The king met foreign minister (former prime minister) Shimon Peres in 1985. Morocco quietly allows visits by Israelis of Moroccan origin.

King Hussein of Jordan has cooperated covertly with Israel for years. Some people consider the relationship a secret alliance. When the former Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir seemed to suggest a Palestinian overthrow of the king, Hussein made his ill-fated connection to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Now, he worries at Israel's peace initiative with his enemy the PLO. With assurance that their relationship is not at his expense, Hussein can make peace with Israel and form the economic confederation with Israel and Palestine that the Israel-PLO agreement anticipates. But he is weak and probably needs Syria to go first.

Syria will go last. President Hafez el Assad also sees his rivals for leadership among the Palestinians recognized by Israel. His last claim to represent them is gone. The dream of a "Greater Syria" incorporating Palestine and Jordan in a Syrian sphere of influence is dead. Finally, the Franco-British drawn line of World War I days -- with Syria and Lebanon above and Palestine, Israel and Jordan below -- is made permanent.

Mr. Assad has a bitter pill to swallow. But he has lost the support of the former Soviet bloc. His friends in Iran cannot help. He can get the Golan Heights back only from Israel, and only in return for true peace. The outlines of the land-for-peace swap is clear now to everyone.

Mr. Assad, however, will hold out for the utmost, which probably requires an American role. From the U.S. he seeks respectability and a guarantee that the U.S. and Israel will not conspire at his overthrow. And for this, President Clinton would require genuine and permanent suppression of terrorism in Syria or Lebanon. Ever cautious, Mr. Assad has not made a commitment. The time is at hand when he must.

The embryonic peace between Israel and the Palestinians must either grow or die. In the first hours after the marvelous spectacle on the White House lawn, it is growing.

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