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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MIDEAST : The Road to Peace Widens : With Jordan coming on board, only Syria is left to be persuaded. Israel has never been in a better position.

July 31, 1994|ABBA EBAN | Abba Eban is a former foreign minister of Israel and a former ambassador to the United States and United Nations

On July 26, the success of the Mideast peace process ceased to be a doubtful prospect and became a near certainty. With the Egyptian treaty firmly established, the Palestinian self-governing authority slowly overcoming its initial disorder and the state of war with Jordan canceled by King Hussein's regal proclamation, Israel is living in a brighter glow than it has ever known before.

Syria is more likely to be drawn into the emerging regional order than to remain outside its magnetic field. Precedent and tradition encourage this hope. Syria has usually joined an Arab initiative at the latest feasible stage. In the early months of 1949, three countries, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, signed armistice agreements with Israel, which defined the regional and territorial structure for some decades. Syria adhered six months later. Henry Kissinger mediated a disengagement agreement with Egypt and Israel in January, 1974. Syria signed a similar agreement later, on May 31 of that year. The lateness was calculated: Syria has to have its demonstration of reluctance; it is a part of its national temperament.

Damascus now has nowhere else to look if it wishes to avoid isolation. President Boris Yeltsin's congratulatory message to President Bill Clinton after the joint U.S. congressional session should remind President Hafez Assad that he no longer has an assured arms supply or the protection of a Russian safety net in the unlikely event of an assault on Israel. There are some indications that he is not far from following the politics of reconciliation practiced by Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization. His frank condemnation of the terrorist assaults in Buenos Aires and London sound like routine gestures, but they are unique in the Syrian practice.

The next phases of the peace process will recall the intrinsic difficulties of negotiating in a multilateral context. All Arab states are faced with an identity problem. Are they sovereign states reaching their decisions in terms of their separate geographies, social orientations and diverse power structures? Or are they a family bound to habits of solidarity and harmonious movement?

The truth is that they are both of these things at different times. In general, the federal tendencies in Arab nationalism are weakening and individual decision-making is on the rise. Anwar Sadat's plunge into peace with Israel, Saddam Hussein's revolt against the West, Moammar Kadafi's anarchic behavior and Jordan's defiant defense of Jordanian interests all give a picture of "each one for itself." Yet there is a strong preference in the Arab world for common action if this does not interfere with national interest. Jordan will probably give time for Syria to join the peace momentum, but not so much time as to miss the opportunities offered by last week's Washington declaration. Syria has missed too many opportunities in the past and it has gained nothing by yielding to intimidation by more radical Arab states.

Another incentive for Syria to join the peace process is that the PLO cannot convincingly inhibit Damascus from negotiating with Israel, as in the past. What is respectable in Arab terms is still defined by the Palestine issue. King Hussein could not have moved to his present attitude toward Israel before the Oslo agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian self-governing authority. Syria could not now accept criticism from Yasser Arafat, who has himself signed commitments well ahead of Damascus.

Hussein's example is also helpful. It would have been grotesque for him to seek more contacts with the previous Israeli government which insisted on keeping all the residents of the West Bank and Gaza under permanent Israeli subjection. Hussein may not be Arafat's greatest admirer, but he is the last ruler who could afford to appear as a betrayer of the Palestine people. Nor is this his ideology. It is the readiness of the current Israeli government for innovation and compromise that has done more than anything else to make a peace process possible.

The Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have awarded Hussein a preferential position regarding the Muslim holy places. This is sustained by traditional rights, but the king will need a Muslim as well as an Israeli mandate for the exercise of that right.

In July, 1967, the government of Israel, in a communication to the United Nations, declared that "Israel does not claim exclusive rights or unilateral responsibility in the Holy Places of Islam." This was drafted by Ministers Menachem Begin, Zerach Warhaftig and me. Our unanimous Israeli refusal to envisage a secular division of our capital is reinforced, not weakened, by our readiness to accept the management of the holy places by those who hold them sacred.

In the next few formative years, Israel will have to give more weight to diplomacy as one of the ultimate guarantors of its peace. One day, a national entity may exist, sufficiently powerful, wealthy and secure to live without any reliance on external forces. It will then be able to dispense with diplomacy. As yet, no such community has existed on earth, though some have aspired to that condition and others have been deluded into thinking that they have achieved it.

With all the lachrymose talk about Israel as the victim of world history, the truth is that no small state has ever been more in need of outside support--or more successful in obtaining it. Anyone who doubted this would have a hard time to name another state that could ever hope to celebrate a day like that which Israel and Jordan lived together in the House of Congress in Washington on July 26, 1994.

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