A peace too precious to forfeit: More bloodshed will follow, but a Middle East deal is close if Israel can only keep its nerve, argues Michael Sheridan

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The Independent Online
ANYONE who wants to understand the impact on Israeli psychology of the blood and flames in Tel Aviv yesterday would do well to remember the refrain so often heard among Israeli soldiers on the battlefields and borders of a nation accustomed to war.

'I'm doing this so they can sit and drink coffee on Dizengoff Street and watch the pretty girls go by,' was the way an artillery lieutenant once put it to me, as he peered nervously through his sandbagged revetment on a cold misty hillside in south Lebanon.

Yet Israel's wars came home to Dizengoff Street in the rush hour yesterday morning when a bomb on a bus killed more people than died in all Saddam Hussein's Scud attacks in 1991. During the long years of conventional conflict the coastal cities of Israel were almost immune from damage. Now Yitzhak Rabin, the hawkish Prime Minister who led Israel into negotiations with her foes, must explain why 'peace' should suddenly bring violence and unpredictable death.

Mr Rabin cut short his visit to London and rushed home to deal with the immediate parliamentary effect: rabid right-wingers demanding blood vengeance, politicised rabbis hurling anathemas, opportunists in his own Labour Party ranks wavering lest the rewards of peace should turn to ashes in their hands.

But the Prime Minister was yesterday telling his closest colleagues one fact that outweighs every other consideration for an Israeli leader. It is this.

Peace with all Israel's neighbours could soon be within her grasp, sealed by an understanding with Syria. That would be an achievement for which the word historic is inadequate. It would convert the daily question of national survival into an acceptance that the Jewish people were established in their chosen state for the first time since the age of the Emperor Titus.

Mr Rabin and his ministers also know that the road to such tranquillity will very likely be paved with atrocities more bloody than any Israel has experienced, or inflicted, in decades of conflict.

The key to all this is Syria. Henry Kissinger famously observed that in the Middle East there could be 'no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria'.

It is 16 years since Israel concluded the Camp David accords with Egypt. It has made peace with the Palestinians, establishing a de facto statelet, and has just initialled a peace treaty with Jordan. Now Damascus is the hinge upon which all Israeli hopes turn.

To those who have watched the intricate and cruel twists of Syrian politics since Camp David, there are multiplying signs of a change, not of heart but in calculation by President Hafez al-Assad. The Syrian leader's rhetoric this week against the 'blasphemy' of the Jordan treaty needs careful reading. Mr Assad was criticising provisions in the draft treaty to lease back liberated Jordanian land to Israeli settlers. But nowhere did he inveigh against the principle itself: that treaties could be made between Arab countries and the place that the Syrian media once dignified as 'the Zionist entity'.

The issue dividing Syria and Israel remains the Golan Heights, which President Assad lost in the Six-Day War of 1967 and failed to regain in the Yom Kippur campaign of 1973. But as the Israeli military writer Hirsh Goodman puts it, in an era of missiles and smart bombs the Heights have lost much of their strategic significance. To Syria, by contrast, they remain an emblem of national dignity. This balance of interests should not in the end be too difficult to resolve.

President Assad told a rally last year to 'prepare for the peace of the brave' and posters acclaiming his policy this week adorned the ancient walls of the Syrian capital. Almost the entire community of Syrian Jews has been permitted to emigrate from Damascus and Aleppo. The exodus followed consistent American pressure, which yielded in 1992 an agreement that a few could leave.

This week, with timing that was hardly fortuitous, the Israeli government lifted military censorship to reveal that 1,300 Syrian Jews had settled in Israel. Even their chief rabbi has now arrived in Tel Aviv, leaving only a few prosperous and well-connected families to represent a strand of Syrian culture that endured since classical antiquity.

The Syrian government had always rejected charges of anti-semitism and it even dispatched reinforcements of secret police to protect synagogues and businesses when tension rose during the Gulf War. Yet the departure of the Jews is still vivid proof of change.

Robbed of his superpower ally by the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Assad is also aware that his pragmatic alliance with Iran has outlived its usefulness. He has been permitted by unspoken international assent to impose a peace of the powerful upon Lebanon, where Syrian troops underwrite the government of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. And he is lured by the promise of oil-based prosperity - growth in the ramshackle Syrian economy is already between 7 and 11 per cent.

A treaty with Syria would surely be followed by another with Lebanon. The rebuilding of Beirut symbolises both Lebanese resilience and the aspiration of Syria to regain its role as a trading nation between Arabia and the Mediterranean. Such progress is the enemy of the phenomenon Mr Rabin yesterday called 'Khomeinism without Khomeini'.

Syria has a secular regime, profoundly hostile to 'Khomeinism'. The constitution is founded upon Islam but women live free of religious restrictions and are prominent in the professions. President Assad's feared security services waged a violent Algerian-style defence against fundamentalist terrorism in the Eighties and crushed an Islamic uprising in the city of Hama with the loss of up to 25,000 lives. There will be no place in a Levant dominated by Syria and Israel for the zealots of Hamas or Hizbollah. These facts are appreciated as keenly in Gaza and Beirut as they are in Jerusalem and Damascus. 'The specific aim of the terrorists is to wreck the whole process in the region,' says the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

For once, therefore, Israel and its Islamic extremist enemies are speaking exactly the same language. Both understand the stakes. To the Islamists, undermining Arafat's bombastic and inefficient regime in Gaza serves the same end as firing rockets at Israeli soldiers in the barren hills of Lebanon. Indeed, for the devout, such deeds are linked inextricably to the struggle for Islamic supremacy in Algeria and the fight to unseat President Mubarak's hapless government in Egypt.

That is why Prime Minister Rabin is so intent on pushing ahead with the conclusion of treaties, why the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, has invested so much time in nudging Syria and Israel together, and why President Bill Clinton is going to the Middle East next week.

Hence the zeal of yesterday's Hamas suicide bomber, the action of his doomed comrades last week in kidnapping and killing a young Israeli soldier; and the drumbeat of incantation against the negotiations from Gaza, Beirut and Tehran. There is a race against time in the Middle East, and all sides know it. Mr Rabin and Mr Peres have been fond of invoking the dreams of Israelis for a peaceful existence in the heart of the Arab world. They would do well to keep in mind the words of T E Lawrence, written after the disillusion and betrayal that attended the birth of the modern Middle East - 'All men dream: but not equally.'

(Photographs omitted)