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Peres Sees Through Rose-Colored Glasses

`THE trouble with this movie,'' Shimon Peres said recently about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, ``is that the happy ending came at the beginning.''

Certainly, the grinding negotiations that have followed the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September have been anticlimactic. More than once they have threatened to collapse.

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But in his new book, ``The New Middle East,'' Israel's foreign minister raises his eyes beyond the details of peace negotiations and paints a broad-canvas happy ending to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a future of ``blooming deserts, restored wastelands, growth, justice and freedom,'' as he puts it.

Peres is the first to agree that these are not concepts that spring to most peoples' minds. But the way he sees things, peace will quickly transform the region beyond recognition.

It is difficult to challenge such a bold and shining vision. To harbor reservations or suggest that the reality on the ground offers little encouragement for a leap of faith seems churlish.

Even while acknowledging that he has always tended to be overly optimistic, Peres scorns the ``unimaginative, passive thinkers who cannot lift the veil of the future, and see the new, burgeoning reality.''

This book sets out one of Peres's favorite themes: Even if Israel makes peace with its Arab neighbors, only shared economic interests will make that peace last. It is an unexceptionable argument, and Peres is committed to making it stick.

But ``The New Middle East'' tries to cover so much ground so fast that weighty issues end up sounding shallow. One moment Peres is making grandiose demands that Middle Easterners should ``change basic cultural values'' and the next he is explaining the chemical process by which fish droppings will decompose in a putative canal linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.

In his enthusiasm, Peres occasionally appears blinded by his own bright vision. He is a keen proponent of a deep-water port in Gaza, for example, which will turn one of the world's foulest slums into a place where ``people will live in prosperity, honor and plenty,'' he writes.

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He makes no mention of the fact, though, that aside from Ashdod, an Israeli port only 30 miles north of Gaza, there are four other deep-water ports in the Eastern Mediterranean, making a Gaza port a dubious proposition. And he assumes blithely that because Syrian President Hafez al-Assad feels obliged by changing geopolitical realities to make peace with Israel, his government and Syrians in general are eager to embark on joint projects with Israelis to beat swords into plowshares or to install an artificial snow machine on the ski slopes of Mount Hermon. Nothing, unfortunately, could be further from the truth.

Peres has devoted his life to politics and public service, and he draws strength from the daring embodied by the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, who inspired early Jewish settlers with his dictum: ``If you will it, it is not a fairy tale.''

Whether the requisite will exists in the region today to build ``The New Middle East'' of Peres's dreams is by no means certain. Before they even start, Arab and Israeli leaders have got some way to go just to close the book on the old Middle East.

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