Approaching peace in the Middle East

January 20, 1996|By Daniel Berger

EVERY president since Harry Truman wanted to be the one to bring peace to the Middle East, Dennis Ross told the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs Wednesday.

It was an unfinished thought by the State Department's top Middle East strategist and negotiator. Left unsaid was that Bill Clinton, of all presidents, might be the one to bring it off.

Mr. Ross served the Reagan and Bush administrations. Keeping him on was a vivid Clinton continuity with Bush policy. Whatever he thinks of the differences between the two ranks with the Riddle of the Sphinx for mystery.

If Mr. Clinton wins re-election, as now seems likely, he may very well be the president who brings peace to a conclusion. If not, the current odds are that Bob Dole would be that president.

The Syrian relationship is the remaining piece of the puzzle, on the premise that Lebanon, a notionally sovereign protectorate of Syria, is included.

The fruits of peace from the Israel-PLO and Israel-Jordan agreements are coming to Israelis.

There is reciprocal tourism with Jordan, Israeli tourism to a half-dozen previously forbidden Arab countries and tremendous increases in trade previously blocked by the Arab boycott of Israel, notably with Japan, South Korea and China.

Palestinians have not enjoyed comparable blessings, although the departure of Israeli soldiers and erection of Palestinian symbols of authority are not insignificant. The real benefit comes in today's election for the Palestinian Council and its president.

Until today, the PLO was a creature of the Palestinian diaspora that spoke for Palestinians in residence without necessarily consulting them. Until today, Mr. Arafat's leadership was imposed.

After today, Mr. Arafat will have legitimacy as the elected leader.

Mandate for peace

In the words of one observer, Mr. Arafat was indispensable to the peace process, which could have been canceled by his assassination, until today. Tomorrow, others will have been elected on a mandate to implement the peace. It could go on without him.

Egypt made the first peace with Israel, but keeps it chilled. Israel wants something warmer, an economic cooperation on the Jordanian model, with Syria. President Hafez el-Assad has been mulling the Egyptian model. Raising Israel's asking price would raise his.

By one theory, Israel and Syria made the crucial breakthrough when they agreed to hold experts' talks at the Wye Plantation. This gave negotiators isolation and continuous contact, promoting a reciprocal empathy in which people can deal with each other's concerns as well as their own.

It is what Israel and the PLO achieved in secret Oslo talks, with no Americans present.

But the resumption of talks at the Wye Plantation Wednesday will not pass the point of no return. Mr. Assad retains the option to fail to agree.

Some people think Mr. Assad's real price is approval of Syria's perpetual domination of Lebanon. This is not U.S. policy, nor in the power of Israel and the U.S. to grant. The Arab League and Lebanese people are the obstacles.

Precious water is what much of this dispute is about, especially Israel's claim to the east shore of the Sea of Galilee. One school of thought holds that Syria cannot concede water sources to Israel until Turkey releases its water riches to Syria. That makes improvement of relations between Turkey and Syria Israel's problem, or Mr. Clinton's.

These are soluble problems if the will is there. Almost unimaginably irreconcilable differences, by comparison, still separate Israel and Palestine.

They postponed these issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlers and a right of return for Palestinians, to the ''status'' negotiations. These will begin in May, presumably after momentum, trust and interdependence have been established by Palestinian autonomy.

These negotiations are scheduled to take three years. So the president we elect in November may be fated to get the credit for the conclusion, and for the final definitive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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