Time to include Syria

Cease-fire agreement or no, the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace process is finished. Like Humpty Dumpty, all efforts to put it together again have failed. But this does not mean that all opportunity for Middle East peace has been destroyed. It means that a new attempt must be made in a different way.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the narrow-gauge approach was inadequate. The three parties, with the United States pushing and pulling the Israelis and Palestinians, could not generate the momentum to carry the day. The cast of characters must be expanded by including Syria - for both positive and negative reasons - in the same way it was brought into the Madrid conference in 1991. Syria has long been a major player in the region.

In recent times, under Hafez al-Assad, Syria's importance has been more that of a spoiler, radicalizing already high tensions. Damascus can still cause trouble. There is no evidence that it stoked the Palestinians' second intifada, but it harbors the headquarters of Palestinian terrorist organizations. It also controls Lebanon, where the Hizbullah, originally an Iranian creation, fought the Israeli Army to a standstill.

Bringing Syria into the broader peace process may seem like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. But there is little choice. At the Camp David talks last July, Israel's Ehud Barak took Yasser Arafat by surprise, offering the Palestinians a presence in Jerusalem that would have been inconceivable six months earlier. The corollary was that the Palestinians give up their claim to the rest of East Jerusalem. Arafat, explaining that it could be fatal to go down in history as the man who "lost Jerusalem" for the Arabs, said no and then traveled around the Islamic world seeking support.

He found support generally, but notably it was in the most important Arab states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The Saudis, as custodians of Mecca and Medina, were especially sensitive to the fate of Islam's third holiest shrine in Jerusalem. Also, over the long time this had been discussed, it had become a popular issue, orchestrated by opposition Islamist politicians. With strong backing by Syria and Iraq, they rendered any compromise on Jerusalem treason against the Arab nation. Most Arab regimes are seriously flawed as one-party states or traditionalist monarchies. Too many of their citizens, growing rapidly in number, are poor, unemployed, short of housing and of hope. They accuse their leaders of varying incompetence, corruption, and cronyism. They form a highly flammable mass, easily touched off by extremists, becoming a force that frightens - and overthrows - regimes: Arab history knows it as "the street."

A farsighted American diplomacy should have done everything in Arab capitals to back Arafat saying yes. On Sept. 28, Ariel Sharon acted to wreck the peace process as Arab suicide bombers had done four years earlier. With hundreds of police and officials, he provocatively visited what the Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary. Since then, bloodshed and force, which even the US accepted as being excessive against Palestinians, have enraged people across the Arab world.

Syria as part of the Middle East peace process is not a fantasy. It could regain its Golan Heights as part of a full agreement with Israel and attract the Western investment it needs very badly. For its part, it could tone down the incendiary propaganda against other Arab states and help to stabilize the area.

For the moment that is not happening. In fact, after generations of bitter hostility, Syria is moving closer to Iraq. It has resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad, restored railroad services to Iraq, promised to increase trade, and joined the chorus against the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait.

The possibility of a poisonous partnership between Syria and Iraq is a reminder that things must not be allowed to drift. Peace must be pursued - and new means employed when old ones fail.

Richard C. Hottelet, a former correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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