Four Old Men Hold the Keys in the Mideast

May 25, 1994|By TRUDY RUBIN

DAMASCUS, SYRIA. — The search for peace in the Middle East is turning into a race against time and mortality. The region's fate lies in the hands -- and health -- of four aging men.

The Arab leaders involved in the peace process -- Syria's Hafez al Assad, 64, Jordan's King Hussein, 59, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, 64 -- are all getting on in life and the first two have had bouts with ill health. In Mr. Arafat's case, he runs a substantial risk of meeting an assassin's bullet.

Everywhere one travels in the Middle East, one hears speculation about whether they will die too soon.

There is no obvious successor for President Assad or Mr. Arafat, and in Jordan, the king's heir and brother Prince Hassan is a capable man who lacks the king's charisma and strategic grasp.

In Syria, the most constant refrain I heard from businessmen, intellectuals and diplomats was the fervent hope that an Israeli-Syrian peace will be concluded ''before he [Mr. Assad] dies.'' The common fear was that the Syrian leader's passing will be followed by a succession struggle and a collective leadership too weak to sign a treaty with Israel.

Even Mr. Arafat's critics worry what would become of their self-rule experiment if anything should happen to him. His survival always has seemed like a miracle since he never seems to eat a decent meal or sleep.

But when he returns to the West Bank, the fears are that he may die an unnatural death. Should he meet up with a bullet from a disgruntled Muslim or Jewish fanatic there won't be any clear way to choose a successor who can speak for all Palestinians.

The top Palestinian-exile leadership has been decimated over the years by assassinations. Limited Palestinian elections on the West Bank and Gaza -- provided in the peace agreement -- won't be held for several months.

In Israel, the time pressure is political. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose coalition commands only a slight majority in parliament, faces elections in two years against an opposition critical of the peace process. The campaign is likely to start distracting him from peace negotiations in about a year. And some Israelis also worry how the heart of even such a tough fighter as Mr. Rabin can -- at age 71 -- take the pressure of domestic politics and waging peace.

Both Israeli and Syrian leaders are acutely aware of the need to make major progress in their negotiations as soon as possible.

The awareness of time and mortality is particularly striking in Syria. The capital, Damascus, is plastered with posters of President Assad's late son Basil who died a few months ago in a car accident. Basil's handsome, bearded face, on car windows, hotel doors, public buildings and buses, is a reminder of how the unexpected event, or death, often affects Middle East politics. Basil's death is said to have deeply influenced his father's sense of urgency about getting back the occupied Golan Heights before he, too, meets his maker.

Mr. Assad is also said to have told Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he realizes the Israeli government could change in two years, bringing in a hawkish Likud Party leadership. He is said to worry that if a treaty isn't signed and implemented by then, Likud leaders would keep their pledge to renege on the deal.

On the other hand, if Mr. Assad signs ''full peace for full withdrawal,'' the stunning fact of peace with Syria will probably assure Prime Minister Rabin's re-election. Thus, there are compelling reasons for Mr. Assad to be more forthcoming in spelling out what kind of peace Syria will offer to get back all of the Golan Heights.

In Israel, too, time pressures are bound to influence the pace of peace talks. Mr. Rabin wants to make a deal with President Assad, because the Syrian has proved reliable on previous partial accords on Lebanon and Golan. And, as a one-man ruler, he can sign a peace without worrying about public opinion or elections.

Moreover, Western diplomats and analysts in Damascus believe that if Mr. Assad signed a peace accord, his successors would find it difficult to challenge the terms. Their focus would have to be on restructuring Syria's socialist economy. They couldn't afford war, nor could they easily overturn Mr. Assad's legacy, backed up by global guarantees.

If history is kind, the current set of Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian leaders will hang in there a while longer. The more time Palestinians have to build up civic institutions in the West Bank and Gaza (and the more latitude Israel gives them to do so) the stronger will be the basis for future co-existence between Israel and some form of Palestinian state.

And once elections are held on the West Bank and Gaza, there will be a democratic body that could speak for a large segment of Palestinians if Mr. Arafat were no longer there. In fact, many Palestinians would be happy to see him gone.

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