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Now the Hard Part

HOWEVER difficult the Palestinian and the Jordanian accords with Israel were to achieve, they were the easy part of Middle East diplomacy.

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is still insistent on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the price of peace with Israel.

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President Clinton's visit to Damascus after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian accord provided a good opportunity to give Mr. Assad personal attention at a critical moment. Mr. Clinton has said he went to Damascus because ``if I was coming to the region, I felt I had to do Syria.''

Mr. Clinton and his aides have declared that ``progress was made'' and that private commitments were made that could lead to substantial progress in peace talks. Assad seems to be negotiating in good faith, albeit still in his own self-interest. The private commitments, whatever they were, were discussed by Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin afterward.

However successful the private diplomacy in Damascus, though, public diplomacy was another matter. No public statement of the kind that might have inspired Israeli confidence was made. Moreover, it was noted that Assad, whose country is condemned for harboring terrorists, did not publicly denounce the recent bus bombing in Tel Aviv, although Clinton repeated Assad's ``private'' expressions of regret.

And when an Israeli journalist asked Assad at a press conference what assurances he could give Israelis that it would be safe to return the Golan Heights, Assad, instead of making a conciliatory gesture, issued a lecture on security policy.

Clinton charitably suggested that Assad was unused to Western-style press conferences with ``fastball'' questions, which is, alas, true. It should count for something, though, that an Israeli was even present, part of a press contingent traveling with Clinton; Syria had hitherto not admitted Israeli journalists.

Clinton's Middle East trip should be seen as a success, albeit one with a limited agenda. Now as the Middle East focus shifts to Syria, he should build on this success - and be prepared to tough it out through the really hard part.

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