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A Wary Middle East Couple May Be Close to an Embrace

MATING dances in nature are odd; even more so in politics. Take the blue-footed booby, an aquatic bird of the Galapagos. The male faces the female, thrusts his beak forward and whistles. She hisses loudly. He lifts one webbed foot then the other to show he is not an interloper from the red-footed species. The logic is compelling, the outcome preordained.

One may say the same about Syria and Israel. Their negotiations continue with whistling and hissing about each other's sinister designs together with protestations of true-blue intention. It is taking years and requires the mediation of a third party, the United States. But the logic is compelling, and if the outcome is not certain, it is only because in the Middle East nothing is certain.

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The time is right for a settlement between these archenemies. Peace is a win-win proposition for all concerned. They are already agreed on the essentials: Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, to which both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are committed, in return for normal diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries. Israel wants normality at once while withdrawing stretches out in phases. Syria wants the Golan now with normal relations developing gradually. The difference is not one of principle but of timing.

Each, of course, mistrusts the other, which calls for confidence-building measures like early-warning systems and demilitarized zones. Both may well want a buffer between them, such as the US-sponsored multinational force that has kept unbroken quiet on the Egyptian-Israeli border for 20 years. The omens are good. The present cease-fire line on the Golan, with a thin United Nations screen, has been just as quiet, just as long. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, once committed, may be relied upon. But the logic, even the inevitability, lies in what all have to gain.

Israel gets the peace, recognition, and access to the Arab world that has eluded it in the nearly 40 years of its existence. With peace in hand, Mr. Rabin can hold his referendum on the Golan and face next year's national election with confidence. Peace is the card to trump the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and the Likud opposition. Without peace, he will lose the election.

An accord with Mr. Assad, who had opposed negotiations with Israel and been patron of the most radical Palestinian groups, will sharply alter the climate in Palestine. No miracles. Iraq and Iran may still subsidize suicide bombers. But the Islamist opposition to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with the Syrian rug pulled out from under it, will be more inclined to join a civil structure. Mr. Arafat's standing improves and so does that of his political Siamese twin, Rabin.

A collateral benefit important to Israel could be the pacification of southern Lebanon. So far Assad has seen no reason to put the lid on the Iranian-backed Hizbullah fighters in their war against Israel. Once having signed a peace agreement, he would have to - or compromise his bona fides from the outset. Syrian dominance in Lebanon would be tacitly acknowledged and Assad would be rid of religious extremists for whom his secular regime has no further use.

What else does Assad get in this deal? The Soviet Union, upon which he depended for so long, is gone. He may now be accepted by a United States grateful for his key role in a historic turn. This promotes him from fringe player of a nasty, spoiling game to that of Arab statesman. The US no longer has the money to reward him as it did Israel and Egypt after Camp David. But Washington has a large say in the international lending agencies. And it could, perhaps, be of influence with Turkey in one of Assad's biggest worries, Ankara's control of Syria's main source of water, the Euphrates River. Washington will also serve, together with Russia, as guarantor that the parties do not violate the terms of the agreement. Last, and certainly not least, Syria regains the Golan Heights.

Assad is an old fox who coldly pursues his interests. He may wonder about his place in history. He may think of his mortality. But, as things stand, he is less under pressure than Rabin. Assad has no election coming up nor any internal opposition that he cannot deal with quickly.

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It remains to be seen, though, whether the temptation to wring more concessions from this advantage will complicate or wreck the process.

The US, also with much to gain, will try to avert this. The US has been deeply engaged in the Middle East. Since Secretary of State James Baker tried in 1991 to apply the prestige of Desert Storm to building peace, American investment of time and effort has been remarkable. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has visited the area 13 times. President Clinton has met Assad twice and telephoned him who knows how often. A secular Assad, rendered respectable, is an asset against Islamists and against Iraq.

Not to mention that an accord signed on the White House lawn would be an important boost to the Clinton presidential campaign.

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