Shifting sands in the Middle East

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THE recent TWA hostage crisis sidetracked an upsurge in Middle East political activity that was looking like the start of a new Arab-Israeli peacemaking process. Whether or not the movement will regain momentum anytime soon is not clear. Even then, hopes for Arab-Israeli peace may be disappointed. But at least the new round of activity has had some unusual characteristics that could presage a basic shift in the Middle East political landscape. To begin with, the principal moving force behind the new activism has not been Egypt, as usual, but Jordan -- the traditional laggard. Also for the first time, important elements within the Palestine Liberation Organization, plus its leader, Yasser Arafat, have joined Jordan in the search for a negotiated peace with Israel.

Meanwhile, some traditional Arab actors in the Arab-Israeli peacemaking drama, including Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, have thus far remained on the sidelines. And Israel, heretofore deeply skeptical of the Jordan-PLO exchange, has responded fairly positively and modified some past positions. Notably, it is now willing to negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, including people associated with the Palestinian nationalist movement though not the PLO itself.

Why is all this happening? A shorthand answer is that the region is beset by new threats and opportunities. Threats to Jordan, for example, emanate from neighboring Syria's increased military power and political influence, from economic downturn caused in part by a sharp drop in Arab aid, and from the increasing appeal of revolutionary Islam. Jordan's King Hussein also rules over a largely Palestinian population. He knows that, if there is no Arab-Israeli settlement that includes creation of an autonomous homeland from the Palestinians in the West Bank, they will be tempted to turn Jordan into a Palestinian state in form as well as fact.

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The Syrian factor has also begun to change. In view of its success in Lebanon, Syria expected to be able to scotch any movement toward peace with Israel. Assad did demonstrate his influence by helping to resolve the hostage crisis, and he can still bring pressure, both political and military, to bear on Jordan. But Syria's star is still not shining as brightly as before, and its ability to wreck an eventual Arab-Israeli peace deal appears to have diminished. It has not managed either to remove Mr. Arafat from the PLO's leadership or to bring the organization under its control.

Even pro-Syrian elements in the PLO have not always proved totally docile. This was illustrated by their siding with the rival Palestinian factions in their fight against the Shiite Amal in Beirut.

Meanwhile, the PLO's military and political disintegration has enhanced the importance of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who resent Syria and its tactics. Most of them are not enamored of Hussein or Arafat, but they would rather deal with these leaders than with Syria. Threatened by Israel's creeping annexation, they also want to rescue their land rather than remain pawns in the intra-Arab power game.

For its part, Iraq, usually a hard-liner, is totally preoccupied with its war with Iran. Saudi Arabia, often appealed to by different parties for moral and financial support, is concerned with deteriorating security in the Persian Gulf, is grappling with the results of falling oil prices, and doesn't want to get involved in a dubious diplomatic venture that Syria strongly opposes.

On the other side of the equation, changes in Israel's position stem in part from the erosion of the Likud bloc's political power. For the time being in control of the prime ministry, Labor has taken a more flexible and realistic approach toward peacemaking. Israel's experience in Lebanon also had a sobering impact, sharpening the sensitivity of thoughtful Israelis to the problems of having a large Arab population in their midst. Nor can Israel be oblivious to militant Islam's growing attraction to Arabs in the occupied territories.

In sum, this is a potent mixture for possible Arab-Israel peacemaking. But how lasting are these changes? Some may prove to be transitory. But others reflect a more lasting and deep-rooted transformation in the political mood of the region, the pattern of intraregional relations, and the regional balance of power. Most significant in the last group is the growing importance of the Palestinians -- no longer limited to the PLO -- who will have an increasing say over their destiny within the Arab world.

Thus, whether or not a breakthrough becomes possible now that the hostage crisis is over, the business of Arab-Israeli peacemaking will no longer be the same. This will offer prospects for creative diplomacy, calling for US participation as well.

Shireen T. Hunter is the deputy director of the Middle East Project at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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