LEADING ARTICLE: A tale of two rulers

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The Independent Online
For many years Syria regarded itself as the redoubt of steadfastness in the Arab world and President Hafez al-Assad, its long-serving ruler, proudly deemed himself the standard-bearer of confrontation with Israel.

But President Assad has discovered that applause from the remaining Arab radicals and the grudging admiration of Islamic fundamentalists provide neither insurance for his regime nor a viable economic future for his people.

That is why he joined the Gulf war against Saddam Hussein of Iraq and then entered the American-sponsored peace negotiations that followed the allied victory of 1991. Four years ago, the Syrian leader was playing the long game for which he is renowned. Many Arabs, detesting the peace talks and regarding their fruits as scant and withered, wish he would play the game to infinity.

But President Assad, spurred on by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the accession of Shimon Peres, appears to have decided that the moment is at hand for hard dealing. Syrian and Israeli envoys began talks yesterday under a cloak of discretion at a countryside retreat outside Washington. The United States hopes that these surroundings may encourage the same brutal realism as that which gave birth to the accords on the former Yugoslavia reached at Dayton, Ohio.

The chief Syrian negotiator, Walid al-Mualem, is quoted as saying that he arrives intent on defending Syria's fundamental rights. No weary reader of the official Damascus press would expect anything less. Yet President Assad seems to glimpse within his grasp the return of all the Golan Heights occupied by Israel, a prize that has eluded him since Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy more than two decades past.

There is hardly a stone on the Golan Heights unturned by the military cartographers. The protagonists know the arguments and could recite the possible dispositions of forces in their sleep. They are separated more by concepts than detail. Syria wants a mere land transaction, Israel a state of peace that will ease its harmonious accommodation into the nations and markets of the Middle East. In fact, the two are inseparable in their effect. President Assad and Mr Peres are too wily a pair of old birds, therefore, not to appreciate how fundamental is their next move.

A word here about Mr Peres. He is depicted by the Israeli Right, and by its ill-instructed editorial apologists abroad, as a man so bent on advancement in the pantheon of history that he would betray Israel's security for a quick and easy deal. Such a view neglects his lifetime dedication to the cause of Israeli military and nuclear superiority over its Arab foes. It is also ignorant of modern political reality, for the Israeli Prime Minister may only move at the measure of his cabinet.

Mr Peres has indeed said that he puts peace before his own electoral prospects in 1996. But to carry a deal returning the Golan Heights, he will need to command a broad spectrum of Israeli opinion. He deserves every ounce of support he can find.

As for President Assad, he, too, is walking with destiny, for he no longer has age, health or a smooth succession on his side. Both men must know that at stake is the most crucial political decision in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.