Mideast Leaders Find New Approaches to Old Conflicts

WILL a successful resolution to the hostage crisis - whenever it occurs - bring the Middle East closer to peace? Probably not. The issues involved in resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute are more complex and weighty than the current imbroglio. Besides, there is a long tradition in the Middle East of prisoner exchanges - even among bitter enemies.But there are some striking similarities in the prerequisites for resolving both of these issues, similarities rooted in the changing political makeup of the Middle East. Developments this year, particularly in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, provide hope for progress toward a solution to both problems. In the first place, key actors in both arenas appear to have grasped the futility of old stances. Heading this list is Syria's Hafez al-Assad. With the Soviet Union's change of course - now confirmed by the failed hardliners' coup - President Assad no longer has a superpower patron to back his quest for strategic parity with Israel or a dependable protector in time of war. He has sought improved relations with the United States, a turn reinforced by Desert Storm's demonstration that the US is the only co untry with the capability and will to thwart Iraqi aggression. Assad hoped that Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq coalition would be the key to a new Syrian-American relationship. But the effort to improve US-Syrian ties has been impeded by significant differences on the peace process and terrorism. The Bush administration's firmness on these issues has forced Assad to choose between long-standing Syrian norms and a new American relationship. Syria's actions in recent months should be seen in this light. By agreeing to accept the American version of a peace conference, Assad expects to bring US pressure to bear on Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights. By taking an active role on the hostage issue, Assad hopes to remove Syria from the State Department's list of terrorism-supporting states - a prerequisite for lifting economic sanctions. In addition, a constructive Syrian approach to the hostages lends credence to Assad's argument that Syria' s domination of Lebanon is a good thing. Tehran also saw the need for a new approach. President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has sought to put the hostage issue behind him to improve Iranian ties to the West and secure financing to repair its economy. Coming to terms with the "Great Satan" has assumed a new weight in Tehran's contentious political debate, following the demonstration of US power in the Gulf war. Syria and Iran have undoubtedly explained to the hostages holders - in a most unsubtle way - that those prisoners have become more of a liability than an asset. FINALLY, there is Israel. Perhaps the most important point illustrated by developments in the hostage crisis and the peace process is that satisfactory solutions to regional problems must deal directly with legitimate Israeli concerns. Israel has insisted throughout the hostage crisis that it will not release Arab prisoners unless and until it receives a full accounting of its POWs and MIAs. Apart from the welcome release of three Western hostages, the most encouraging aspect of the past two weeks is the growing sense of acceptance of Israel's approach in the international community. Not only have President Bush and UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar expressed understanding of the Israeli position, but figures like Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Mehdi Shamsheddine are reportedly combing the countryside to obtain the information necessary for a full accounting of missing Israeli soldiers. Moreover, Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbullah group has reiterated its willingness - first stated last May - to trade Israelis for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. If the hostage holders are truly ready to deal with Israel in good faith, there is reason to hope for a resolution to the hostage problem. So too with the peace process. Anwar Sadat demonstrated in 1977 that Egypt could only recover territory by negotiating directly with Israel and accommodating Israeli security concerns. Moreover, he demonstrated that the best way to improve relations with Washington was to journey to Jerusalem. Unlike President Sadat, Assad has not yet articulated a compelling vision of Middle East peace that could win over the Israeli public. But if Assad does sit down at the table and talk directly with Israeli leaders this fall, he will have fulfilled a key prerequisite for a successful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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