For nearly a half-century, Syria and its dictators have insisted they were at war with Israel, even when they weren't really, even when they were insuring against PLO provocations from their turf. Their intransigence helped to keep peace unimaginable. So if President Hafez el Assad is prepared to negotiate with Israel, prepared to recognize Israel, prepared to live in peace with Israel, that potential sea change in Syrian policy requires exploration.
Relations between Syria and Israel are more sensitive now than ever because of the Lebanese army's eviction, with Syrian backing, of buffers between them in the name of re-establishing Lebanese sovereignty. With Lebanon a Syrian protectorate and Syrian troops in Lebanon, the departure of Israeli-backed forces from southern Lebanon is both demanded and dependent on a Syrian-Israeli understanding that does not exist.
President Assad is a dictator from the same Baath Party that Saddam Hussein used to attain power in Iraq. He has supported terrorism. He has been a Soviet client. He has brutally slaughtered his own citizens. The difference between the two is that the Syrian dictator understood the Gorbachev revolution in Soviet foreign policy as requiring him to come to terms with the West, while the Iraqi dictator understood no such thing. Syrian troops stood next to Americans in guarding Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression. That was a startling enough change in U.S.-Syrian relations for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to seek to learn how far it would go.
But has Mr. Assad really changed? Many don't think so. He is unscrupulous and clever. Perhaps his celebrated response to the U.S. peace proposal, which President Bush called "positive" and which remains unpublished, is just a ploy to highlight the intransigence of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on the other side. Perhaps he wants to weaken Israel's defenses, without allowing an agreement to be reached, to put new strains on the U.S.-Israeli relationship at no cost to himself.
Israel's intransigence on territory is a real obstacle to peace in the Middle East, though not nearly so great an obstacle as Syria's four-decade commitment to the destruction of Israel. Secretary Baker's sudden diversion to a fifth Middle East peace mission after the London summit is a reasonable response to the Syrian message. The possibility of Syrian peace with its neighbor is too important, in the world's and Israel's interest, to be left unexplored. The possibility of mere Assad gamesmanship to make trouble for the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too real to be discounted. But if this turns out to be a real opportunity for Israeli-Arab peace, that would be too important to pass up.