I was walking in a delegation of world leaders behind a gun carriage bearing the body of Morocco's King Hassan II to his tomb. The long walk in unremitting July heat, and the anguished crowd swirling about me, made it hard to keep my mind focused on the event. The unspoken questions for me and, I suspected, for many of the other mourners, were just how far we had left to travel and how long it would take us to get there. As we walked on, it suddenly struck me that these very same questions -- directed to the Mideast peace process -- were on the mind of each of the world leaders walking with me.
For a region prone to sudden, often violent change, the cast of characters in the Mideast has been remarkably stable. In February 1993, when I made my first trip to the region as secretary of state, the Arab leaders -- Egypt's Mubarak, Syria's Assad, Saudi Arabia's Fahd, Jordan's Hussein, Libya's Gadhafi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the PLO's Arafat -- had all been in power for more than two decades. In Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, then beginning his second go-round as prime minister, had held various leadership positions for almost as long.
Then began the departure of the wisest men of the peace dialogue, first with the assassination of Rabin, then the deaths of King Hussein and King Hassan. Both kings died quietly, and both were replaced by sons in their thirties who spoke a new language of economic progress and political reconciliation. New leaders also acceded to the thrones of Qatar and Bahrain. In Israel, the three years of stalemate that followed Rabin's assassination gave way to the promise of progress in the person of Rabin's 56-year-old protege, Ehud Barak.
As many in the press would have it, these transitions presage a quick and easy path to a comprehensive Mideast peace. That prediction, while tempting to embrace, is unfortunately at odds with reality.
In Syria, Hafez Assad, 70 years old and ailing, remains in charge. Assad has strong reasons to want to make something happen soon and has taken a few tentative steps in that direction. He made complimentary remarks when Ehud Barak assumed office, has kept Hezbollah under control and put the Palestinians on notice that they were not to carry out terrorist activity from Syrian-controlled territory.
Characteristically, however, Assad also has shown signs that he has yet to free himself from the cage of his own mistrust for Israel. Most notably, he declined to attend King Hassan's funeral, apparently because he didn't want to shake Barak's hand. In addition, there have been recent suggestions from his camp that when or if negotiations resume, Assad will embrace the same intransigent approach that has marked him to date, refusing to talk until Barak agrees to return the Golan Heights to Syria to the line of June 4, 1967 -- the central point at issue.
No amount of creativity by Ehud Barak or by any of the new Arab leaders, even with the active support and encouragement of the United States, can produce a solution without a sea change in Assad's attitude. The geography of Israel requires that the withdrawals of Israeli and Syrian troops be asymmetrical and that the zones of disarmament be unequal. The Israelis will want troop withdrawals to proceed slowly and normalization quickly; Assad's position is the diametric opposite. Mechanisms for early warning may require some compromise of absolute sovereignty for one or both countries.
These issues are not beyond resolution, and there are some available trade-offs, but unless a "new," more flexible Assad appears on the scene, the prospect is for incremental progress, at best.
On the Palestinian track, the key remains Yasser Arafat, who struggles to overcome the burdens of illness, age and a very hard life. Though he willingly embraced Barak at the funeral of King Hassan, winning gestures alone cannot solve the hard problems that remain. The Oslo agreement left the final status issues for last because they are the toughest. Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, water and, above all, Jerusalem are vexing problems burdened by a hateful history. On each of these issues, Arafat must deal with truculent spokespersons from within his own increasingly restless constituency.
Barak brings a strong commitment to the peace process, as well as a conviction that the moment might just have arrived when, sensing that history is about to leave them behind, both Assad and Arafat may be ready for a final deal. But Barak's modern systems approach may clash with Assad's bazaar-style insistence on haggling over every detail or with the intuitive, manipulative style that Arafat developed during his terrorist years.
And no one knows what will happen when either Assad or Arafat no longer speaks for his people. Barak's need to move swiftly, before Assad's frailty overcomes him and before Arafat's power wanes, is not necessarily an imperative that Assad or Arafat shares or appreciates. Even if they did, the difficulty of the issues that remain works against quick or easy resolution.
In sum, though the new generation of leaders in the Middle East holds great long-term promise, it is not at all clear that such promise will lead to an early peace. The presence of an old guard in the key roles and the inherent intractability of the remaining issues mean that the road ahead will be long and difficult. Still, having journeyed a part of the way to a Mideast peace, I continue to believe that the ultimate destination can and will be reached.
The writer, U.S. secretary of state from 1993-97, is a senior partner of O'Melveny & Myers, an international law firm.