THE signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in the Arava Desert tomorrow could hasten a comprehensive peace in the Middle East by setting the stage for a similar pact between Israel and Syria.
The decision by King Hussein of Jordan to clinch the bilateral accord with Israel without waiting for other Arab countries - like Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia - has stepped up the pressure on Syria's President Hafez al-Assad to make peace with Israel.
The elaborate signing ceremony could be eclipsed in its significance by United States President Clinton's landmark meeting with President Assad.
``Two of the three stages for peace in the Middle East are now in place with the Egypt and Jordan accords,'' a senior Israeli official says. ``Now the big one still to go is Syria....''
The accord also has immediate implications for Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and the future of the year-old Israel-PLO peace accord that has become bogged down and increasingly discredited in the eyes of Palestinians.
Immediate benefits for Jordan include access to expanded water resources, the return of land, and access to US and international loans, investment, and technological assistance.
For Israel, the accord is another major step forward in its battle for recognition by Arab states of its right to exist and provide a new buffer zone between itself and Iraq, with the undertaking that Jordan will not allow its territory to be used as a way for forces to invade Israel.
The Israel-Jordan peace treaty could also hasten the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and could increase pressure on Iraq's President Saddam Hussein to adopt a more pragmatic approach.
In the past year, Tunisia and Morocco have established low-level ties with Israel, and the Gulf states have initiated trade and tourism links.
West has high hopes
Hopes are high in US and Western diplomatic circles that Mr. Clinton's scheduled meeting with Assad in Damascus on Thursday could achieve the breakthrough necessary for a comprehensive peace in the region within months.
Assad is eager to be dropped from the US blacklist of countries that sponsor terrorism and is in dire need of US capital following the vacuum left by the demise of the Soviet empire.
Western diplomats here say that Clinton in return will demand from Assad an agreement for an an early meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the thorny issue of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau seized by Israel in the 1967 war.
Clinton is also expected to demand from Assad firm guarantees that he will take effective steps to prevent Syrian territory from being used as a springboard for the militant Islamic group Hizbullah to launch rocket attacks into northern Israel. Clinton is also likely to seek confidence-building measures regarding the Syrian quid pro quo for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
Assad vehemently opposed Israeli suggestions that the lease-back arrangement contained in the Israel-Jordan accord - Israel will return but immediately lease back from Jordan land occupied by Israeli settlers - was a model for the Golan.
Assad traveled to Cairo last week to seek clarification from President Hosni Mubarak regarding the Jordanian-Israeli accord and to seek his moral support in resisting a similar arrangement for the Golan. ``Land is honor,'' President Mubarak said after his meeting with Assad. ``This can only bring dishonor. There is no way Egypt would ever lease its land to another country.''
Mr. Rabin, who has indicated that he is prepared to discuss the status of the Golan, faces massive public resistance to a full Israeli withdrawal from the plateau.
``Rabin won't commit himself on a withdrawal before Assad spells out the quid pro quo, and Assad won't discuss the conditions until Rabin agrees to the withdrawal,'' says a Western diplomat here.
Mubarak of Egypt - the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel 15 years ago - said in Cairo Sunday that it was now a ``matter of time'' before Syria and Israel sign an accord.
Clinton is due to meet Mubarak and PLO Chairman Arafat in Cairo before the signing in the Arava Desert on Israel's southern border with Jordan.
Arafat angered by accord
The Israel-Jordan accord has angered Arafat by formally acknowledging King Hussein's traditional role as custodian of Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem.
The accord also says Israel will consult with Jordan before negotiating the fate of 1948 Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan in final status talks with the Palestinians, which must be held within two years.
Arafat was not consulted before King Hussein and Rabin initialed the accord, nor was he invited to the signing ceremony tomorrow. In apparent retaliation, Arafat ordered a senior PLO official invited to the ceremony to boycott the signing.
Diplomats say that the surprising haste with which the accord was signed indicates that Rabin sees progress with a broader Middle East peace taking precedence over implementation of the stalled Israel-PLO accord.
``Each time Rabin finds a new friend in the Arab world, it further weakens Arafat's leverage with Israel,'' a Western diplomat says.