The bad boy of Arab ambassadors' briefings at the State Department, the tenacious tormentor and inquisitor of U.S. assistant secretaries for Near Eastern affairs and their bosses, but also a cherubic character who believed in peace, is packing his bags. Syrian Ambassador Walid Moualem, a man who toiled for nine years to burnish Syria's not-so-perfect image in Washington and who presided over a daring Arab-Israeli peace process and Syria's reluctant but inevitable participation in it, is going home to Damascus and an uncertain future.

The rounds of farewell dinners and roasts have barely begun. Jordanian Ambassador Marwan Muasher said last Thursday at a dinner for Moualem that if there ever is a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty it will have his "fingerprints all over it."

"There are few of us who witnessed the beginning of the process. We are a vanishing breed. I hope the peace process will finish before we do," Muasher joked. "Although we did not always see eye to eye on everything, I will miss Walid's wit, charm and sarcasm."

Moualem, who was toasted by Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Martin S. Indyk and Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis B. Ross, said he has worked for peace and his dream is that it will be accomplished "for us and our children."

"Maybe I failed to bring about a real push. Time is always a factor in the Middle East, because it is full of surprises. We must not miss this time," he said of past opportunities lost. "If there is progress, it is my doing, and if there is no progress, it is Dennis's doing. Whenever there were difficulties, Dennis would say, 'We will manage, we will manage it.' Well, I am leaving you to manage it now," he said, turning to Ross.

"I would not always say it was a pleasure to work with you, but it was always a privilege," Ross answered, noting that Moualem's commitment was often a "source of inspiration and motivation."

Moualem said he regrets leaving with his mission incomplete. "I know that you have made a serious difference for Syria," said Pickering, noting that Moualem "did not let you get away with anything," and that he was "sometimes irascible, but always full of humor." He is someone whose contributions will never be forgotten in Damascus or Washington, Pickering said, adding that when he retires, he intends to look up Moualem in Damascus for some sightseeing, and that maybe they can find a hakawati, a traditional story teller, spinning tales of Arab heroism in a cafe. To quote a senior American official: "Moualem's story is not over, a chapter remains to be written."

In With the New

While Syria is leaving this crucial diplomatic post vacant, Israel is wasting no time in filling it. David Ivri, one of the pillars of Israel's security establishment, is coming to Washington as ambassador to replace Zalman Shoval, who stayed beyond the election defeat of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last May 17 and the election of his successor, Ehud Barak. Ivri, a former air force commander and Defense Ministry director general, is currently director of Israel's National Security Council. After announcing his diplomatic appointment yesterday, Israeli television reported that Washington had asked for Ivri's appointment, just as Barak had asked for Indyk to return to Israel as U.S. ambassador.

Ivri has been closely involved in the Israeli purchase of American weapons and is "in many ways one of the key architects of U.S.-Israeli security cooperation," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ivri has overseen Israeli-Turkish and Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation and has been intimately involved in Israel's strategic relations over the past two decades, he added. Satloff said Ivri is held in "extremely high regard as a professional's professional and a true strategic thinker" and that there is more to him than the nuts and bolts of military hardware.

The Days Dwindle Down

So is 2000 the year of the peace process? This is the view of Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli minister of public security who is visiting Washington this week. The year is especially crucial because President Clinton and his team have just over a year left in office, Ben-Ami said. "The moment is very interesting," he told Washington Post editors and reporters Monday. "We feel that the Clinton administration, this administration's life, is the life of the peace process."

Ben-Ami said the Nov. 2 summit conference in Oslo involving Clinton, Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is important "as an indication that we have moved to a phase when we start getting down to business." He said dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank has to be done in "as consensual a way as possible" and after a popular referendum. "We are talking of something of meta-historical meaning. We are a nation in a permanent identity crisis and adolescence because we don't have a clear idea of what is our state. We are defining our border. It is the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict and needs ceremonial popular approval," he said.

"We don't want to end up doing peace with the Arabs and war within Israel," Ben-Ami added.