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Clinton's crucial visit: Damascus

President Clinton puts his new-found foreign policy credentials on the line this week with a wide-ranging tour of the Middle East centered on the signing of a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

But while the signing ceremony at a desert outpost Wednesday will be the most dramatically visible stop on the president's six-nation trip, it won't be the most crucial _ not by a long shot.

That will come the following day when Clinton sits down with Hafez Assad in Damascus to find out just how serious the Syrian president is about making peace too.

If Clinton can persuade Assad to move ahead quickly on cutting a deal with Israel over return of the Golan Heights, the trip will have been a success and the president's foreign policy credentials validated. But if Assad continues to hold out on peace with Israel, Clinton's recent successes in Haiti and Kuwait could begin to look less substantial _ based more on a lucky confluence of random events than a true mastery of world affairs.

In the president's favor is a conviction among his top advisers on the Middle East, as well as more independent minded regional experts in the U.S. intelligence community, that Assad is ready to deal _ if not this week then very soon.

The Syrian president, they say, wants to get on board with the peace process while he still has the power to influence its direction.

One sign of that, according to State Department official Daniel Kurtzer, is that the billboards in Damascus have been repainted recently. Instead of reading, "Assad: Hero of War," as they have for years, Kurtzer notes, the billboards now read, "Assad: Hero of Peace."

"And there have been other, very positive, signs in recent weeks," says Kurtzer, the deputy assistant secretary of state who has been directing U.S. negotiators in the Middle East peace talks.

One factor behind this, intelligence community experts on the Middle East say, is that the Palestinians and now Jordan have gone forward in the peace process without getting permission from Damascus. Only four years ago, defying Assad this way would have been unthinkable.

The changing Middle East climate, the experts agree, is due to two factors: the collapse of the Soviet Union and Washington's hegemony in the region after its one-sided victory in the 1991 gulf war. With no other superpower patron to turn to, the experts explain, so-called "rejectionist" nations such as Syria are now dealing with the United States and its ally, Israel.

The dispute between Syria and Israel seems simple enough:

Damascus demands that Israel withdraw completely from the Golan Heights territory it captured from Syria in 1967. Israel doesn't rule out such a withdrawal but says it can happen only if Syria formally recognizes Israel and signs a full peace treaty with it.

The complications arise when Israel insists that any withdrawal it undertakes be carried out in phases over several years _ the same procedure it used in making peace with Egypt 15 years ago and is now using to reach a settlement with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

Assad has so far rejected the phased approach, insisting that all of the Golan Heights be returned at once. The Syrian leader also has been less than precise on the nature of any peace treaty he might sign, causing many Israelis to question his true motives.

What the Israelis would like to see, of course, is for Assad to approach the peace process in the same spirit as King Hussein of Jordan. When Israeli and Jordanian officials sign their treaty on Wednesday, each side will be doing so in the confident expectation that the other isn't playing games, that it truly intends to make peace.

In large part, that's because Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been meeting secretly for more than 20 years, know each other well and trust each other's word.

Because of this trust, security concerns were never a real issue in the Jordanian-Israeli negotiations. The main talking points were allocating water rights along the Jordan River valley and re-aligning their common frontier in the Arava border region south of the Dead Sea.

The water rights issue was settled when Israel agreed to build a series of small dams on the Yarmuk River to adjust the level of the Sea of Galilee and divert more water toward Jordan. The Arava border question was resolved when Israel ceded small swatches of frontier territory to Jordan and Jordan agreed to a lease-back deal with Israeli farmers.

In addition, the two sides agreed on linking their electricity grids and telephone systems as well as cooperation on the environment, commercial aviation and navigation in the Red Sea.

These kinds of concessions, achieved since Hussein and Arafat met at the White House in late July, would have been difficult, if not impossible, without a large measure of mutual trust.

But while U.S. experts are ecstatic about the Israel-Jordan treaty and hopeful about prospects for peace with Syria, they are much more cautious when it comes to assessing future progress between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Two problems could easily sabotage progress on this front _ extremist terrorism and PLO chief Yasser Arafat.

U.S. experts worry that continued terror attacks by Hamas, the Islamic extremist organization, could undermine the Rabin government's tenuous hold on power and open the way for a new government led by the hard-line Likud Party.

What's needed, all agree, is a much more forceful effort by Arafat's PLO to rein in Hamas. So far, they say, the PLO's performance has been little short of miserable.

Arafat in particular was criticized for his reluctance to take on Hamas even though it threatens the legitimacy of PLO rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The PLO chief also has drawn criticism as a poor administrator whose inability to set up governing institutions in the territory he controls is slowing down the peace process. The Israelis have even had to protect their investment in the peace process by sending in experts to help the PLO set up a tax-collection system.

Arafat, the American experts conclude, has so far failed to make the transition from guerrilla chief to political leader and statesman.

But even if Arafat gets his act together and the PLO and Israel can withstand the challenge from Hamas terrorists, U.S. experts say there is another obstacle to peace between these old enemies _ Jerusalem.

The PLO claims East Jerusalem as the capital of its fledgling Palestinian nation. Israel has proclaimed the city indivisible and the eternal capital of the Jewish state.

For now, at least, the intractable Jerusalem dispute is being put off for at least two years when the two sides begin what they call "final status" talks on the Israeli-occupied territories.

"There are no signs of giving in from any side on the question of Jerusalem," concedes the State Department's Kurtzer.

"We've always tried to keep the Jerusalem problem at the end of the (peace) process. Maybe it's because we don't have any solution either."