Peace Race

The handshake's the thing. This week President Bill Clinton will bring together the Syrian foreign minister and the prime minister of Israel and, if all goes according to plan, they'll extend their hands for a historic photo op. "The president is very good at smashing two guys together," as one State Department official puts it.

Securing a peace deal with Damascus has become a matter of urgency for Israel. The risk is not that war will break out, but that conditions within Syria may soon make it hard to find anyone with whom Israel can cut a deal. At 69, President Hafez Assad reportedly is suffering from heart disease, diabetes and other ailments. The wolves are circling. His younger brother Rifaat Assad, who has spent most of the last 15 years in exile after a bid to seize power, has been floating rumors that he is still the best man to take over. But Assad wants his son Bashar to inherit his mantle. In October Bashar's backers attacked a beachfront mansion and small port in Western Syria belonging to Rifaat, killing several of Rifaat's loyalists. The French daily Liberation and several other European papers also reported that a younger Assad son, Maher, shot and wounded Asses al-Shawkat, the ambitious husband of Assad's daughter Bushra and a close adviser to Bashar.

"Nobody knows where Assad will be a year from now--or six months from now," said one State Department official before the latest breakthrough was announced. If Clinton can help it, he'll be shaking hands on the White House lawn.

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