LONDON. — London -- Suppose it really worked?
Israel's new government is negotiating seriously about Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories, perhaps as a first step toward something more later on. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has even said he may be willing to give some of the Golan Heights back to Syria, and the U.S. has promised to put American troops there if Israel withdraws.
"We heard today a different tone . . . a different approach and style and atmosphere" from the Israelis, said Syrian spokeswoman Bushra Kananafi after the opening of the sixth round of Middle Eastern peace talks in Washington.
There is still a long way to go, but a Middle Eastern peace settlement may be on the way. And the question is: Could it last?
In theory, there is no reason why not. The enmity between Arabs and Israelis goes deep, but is not unique. If France and Germany have been at peace for 47 years, and India and Pakistan have not fought for two decades, then the Arabs and Israelis can stop fighting, too.
However, a peace treaty does not end mutual suspicion and fear. It generally takes enough time for the older generation to die out before genuine trust and friendship are possible, and even then such things are not guaranteed.
So what is the practical likelihood that an Arab-Israeli peace treaty, once signed, would actually stick? Probably no better than 50-50, for it has been left very late.
If you look at the leaders of the countries and groups, the first thing that strikes you is that they have been around for the better part of forever.
Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, Jordan's King Hussein, Syria's President Hafez el Assad, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the PLO's Chairman Yasser Arafat and Faisal Husseini of the 'internal' Palestinians are all men who have been at or near the top of politics in their countries or organizations for at least two decades. And that has consequences.
It means, first of all, that they have learned through painful experience that there is no way of ending this problem by violence. They have all tried that, and it didn't work.
Secondly, they are all now much nearer the end than the beginning of their political careers, and would like to leave some lasting achievement behind them. They are therefore readier than ever before to make significant concessions for peace.
And the peace talks have another thing going for them. At the moment, all the potential spoilers of a deal are cornered or side-tracked one way or another.
Thanks to Saddam Hussein's brutal incompetence, Iraq cannot play its usual role in the Arab world as chief rival to Egypt and the core of resistance to policies made in Cairo. The Gulf Arabs cannot sit on the fence, because they depend on Egypt, Syria and the West for protection from Iraq. Iran is still contemplating its revolutionary navel.
So the odds on a deal are better than ever. The flip side of this is that none of the present leaders on the Arab side can be counted on for the long haul. Mr. Rabin is reasonably secure politically in Israel, but his interlocutors are a dodgy lot in terms of longevity.
King Hussein, in addition to his mounting health problems, faces a fundamentalist majority in the Jordanian parliament that disapproves of any concessions toward Israel. The health of Syria's President Assad is always doubtful, and the Muslim Brotherhood there, despite the most brutal repression, still waits patiently for him to stumble.
The Egyptian government oscillates between jailing fundamentalist critics and placating them by jailing liberal writers instead. The aging Mr. Arafat is losing his grip over the PLO's organisation in Tunis, while in parts of the occupied territories the PLO is outflanked by the radical fundamentalists of Hamas.
All the potential successors to the present Arab leaders fiercely denounce the idea of peace negotiations with Israel. So any deal signed this year must be a gamble. Especially since it would involve a three-to-five year timetable of gradual steps toward a permanent peace.
How many of these Arab leaders will be around to keep their countries committed to the peace process over such a period? That is unknowable, but the odds suggest not all of them.
A single change of Arab leadership would not necessarily doom a peace agreement to collapse. That would depend where it happened, and who the new leaders were.
If it were just Jordan or the PLO, things could probably be held together so long as the bigger players remained committed to the process. But if the fundamentalists seize power in Egypt or Syria, forget it.
There can certainly be no guarantee that a peace treaty signed this year would be the end of the story. Both Israeli and Arab governments would face bitter internal resistance to the compromises they had made, and serious violence could not be excluded on either side.
So are the peace talks really worth the effort from Israel's point of view?
Yes, because a successful Arab-Israeli peace settlement would make it less likely that the next generation of leaders in neighboring countries would be wild-eyed fanatics bent on holy war and martyrdom. Success feeds on itself. So does peace.
Gwynne Dyer writes a column on world affairs.