Leading Article: Mr Blair can play a role in encouraging Middle East peace

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, sits down to chat with Tony Blair today, reflections on how to keep a peace process on course will be high on their agenda. Mr Blair's own agreement in Northern Ireland has been grounded, temporarily we hope, on the shoals of mistrust between ancient antagonists. But suddenly, with the downfall of Bibi Netanyahu and advent of Mr Barak, there is hope that it will soon be possible to refloat the nearly sunk Oslo and Wye peace agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The omens appear to be promising for Mr Barak. He has formed a broad- based government to replace Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition and, earlier this week, four non-Jewish members of the Knesset joined the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, the first Arab members to do so. In Washington, President Clinton has promised $2.4bn a year of military aid, $930m a year of economic aid and $1.2bn to implement the Wye agreement; 50 F-16 jet fighters and a battery of anti-missile missiles to help maintain Israel's "strategic edge"; and the addition of an Israeli astronaut to the Nasa crew list for the space shuttle in 2000. In the Arab capitals, from Cairo to Amman to Damascus, there have been almost enthusiastic words of welcome and encouragement for Mr Barak's government.

What, if anything, Mr Blair can add to this impressive line-up is his much-vaunted influence in Europe. If, for example, a peace treaty is signed with Syria that requires the Israeli settlers, who are deeply entrenched on the Golan Heights, to move to Israel proper, even more money will be needed to help them re-establish their homes and farms and businesses. Syria, too, will hope to get a peace dividend and, if it is to join the comity of nations, the EU could grant it favourable trade terms and development grants. Also, well-equipped and experienced soldiers may be needed to patrol the new peace lines that separate Israel from Syria; and here too Europe, and the UK in particular, is well supplied.

But even with all these offers of assistance, the process must begin somewhere, and what better place than with the one powerful neighbouring state yet to sign a peace treaty with Israel? President Assad has an evident desire to get the Golan Heights back for Syria, and both he and Mr Barak are strong leaders who are well positioned to take the necessary risks to conclude a deal. Peace between Israel and Syria (and, subsequently, with the Palestinians themselves) would remove such a major source of tension from the Middle East that it is well worth paying the price to help speed it on its way. And Tony Blair might get a fillip of encouragement from the lesson that even stalled peace processes can get back on the road.