THE United States, even as war rages in the Persian Gulf, is formulating the outlines of a new Middle East peace plan to be launched after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces are removed from Kuwait. The new US ideas are not likely to bring joy to the Palestinians and are stirring controversy among US coalition members.
According to Middle Eastern and European officials familiar with it, the new process envisions talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors, with a key role for Syria. Arms control, economic cooperation, and regional security are also main topics. US State Department officials confirmed that the plan existed, but declined to discuss it on the record.
According to one version of the plan, Damascus would enter direct dialogue with Jerusalem. Simultaneously, Israel would make a ``generous offer'' for talks to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The new ideas represent a break with recent US efforts to solve the Palestinian problem. Since the beginning of the Palestinian upheaval in the Israeli-occupied territories in late 1987, the US has concentrated on starting talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with an indirect role given to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The new plan would cut the PLO out of the peace process.
Although one Bush administration official insists no promises have been made to Jerusalem, the new thinking in Washington is almost identical to recent positions of the Israeli government, linking a solution for the Palestinians to an end to the state of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
``After the war, the Arab countries will be on their knees,'' says a European diplomat. ``They will be in such a state of shock after the defeat. They will think this [new process] is the only way.''
Because the PLO has supported Saddam Hussein, says a high-ranking European diplomat whose government has been briefed on the US thinking, it ``will be in such bad shape [it] won't be able to block the process. The Americans are saying the PLO is finished.''
The plan also reflects a major shift in US thinking on Syria. When in the early 1980s the US opposed Syrian attempts to impose its hegemony over Lebanon, the Syrians became involved in terrorism against US targets in Lebanon. Thwarted in his drive to create a Palestinian state and reclaim the Golan Heights from Israel, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad set out to achieve military parity with Israel and to use terror to sabotage attempts at peace.
In 1986, Syria was implicated in a plot to hijack an Israeli jetliner at London's Heathrow airport. The US recalled its ambassador in Damascus. Two years later, Syria was implicated in the bombing of a Pan American airliner. But by then, the US had dispatched a new ambassador. The Syrians, anxious to break out of diplomatic isolation, promised to control radical Palestinian groups in their territory and were helpful in freeing US hostages in Lebanon.
Syria earned more favor with the US by committing Syrian troops to Saudi Arabia's defense after after Iraq invaded Kuwait last August. In September, US Secretary of State James Baker III met with Mr. Assad in Damascus in the first high-level talks between the two countries in more than two years. In late November, President Bush met with Assad in Geneva.
More recently, Syria has pleased the US by stating it would not quit the Arab coalition, even if Israel retaliated for Iraqi missile attacks.
Middle East analysts say that Syria's shift began in late 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew military funding from Damascus. Without the aid of Moscow, Syrian military parity became unachievable.
A senior Egyptian diplomat, speaking on background, told the Monitor that Syria is willing to talk with Israel, and would sign a peace agreement, if it regained the Golan Heights.
Other analysts, however, remain skeptical. ``I don't see Assad going to Jerusalem,'' says Nicholas Veliotes, a former US assistant secretary for Middle Eastern affairs, alluding to Sadat's historic 1977 visit.
William Quandt, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution, warns that Syria will not be able to bring Palestinians into a new peace process and West Bank Palestinians will not join on their own. ``If we make the Syrians the center of our policy,'' he says, ``they can't really deliver the Palestinians.''
Word of the new US ideas has already raised some eyebrows among friendly countries. ``In the Saudi view,'' says an Arab diplomat, ``Egypt and Saudi Arabia will represent the leadership of the Arab world after the crisis. Jordan will represent the Palestinians.''
Egypt sees itself, Saudi Arabia, and Syria taking the diplomatic lead in the future.
Analysts and officials point out that any new peace plan will depend on the outcome of the war. A surge of pro-Iraq popular sentiment in Syria will undermine moderation.