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Jewish World Review June 13, 2000 /10 Sivan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Death of a tyrant:
Sic semper tyrannis -- Sic semper tyrannis. It's a set piece by now, especially in the Middle East. The official condolences from all those in power tend to be as ornate as they are hypocritical. The governments that Syria's Hafez al-Assad would have overthrown at one time or another during his long, bloody and ruthless rule now join in expressing their sorrow at the loss of a man of peace.

The Street shouts its slogans, tears its garments and wails the loss of The Great Man. While in private, those who still hope for peace and freedom sigh a prudently concealed sigh of relief, and maybe even of hope.

It's such a familiar, self-deluding scene. The death of Stalin just before he was going to unleash still another purge can be taken as a model in these funereal affairs: Those raised on Newspeak felt lost and abandoned by the death of Big Brother, while others felt alive for the first time in years. To quote the words of a Russian suddenly released from the Gulag:

... that great moment when they set me free
From barbed-wire fences and the lightless prisons,
That moment suddenly arrived, unguarded,
With early March's glittering frost, and heaven
Lit up with stars at noon, and on my lips
The blessing not said since childhood suddenly
Recalled as if it were but yesterday --
I make myself believe: to every lover
Of mankind that day will be a holiday,
Arriving without asking to come in.

So it always is: No matter how expected, no matter how long the dictator is described as ailing, no matter whether he is styled Stalin or Mao or the Maximum Leader or the Lion of Damascus, no matter how elaborate the official rites, or how long the official and only official days of mourning, the feeling is always the same when a tyrant is no more. It is as if a stone had been lifted. Human mortality can be a saving thing.

There is mourning and there is only official mourning., No matter what time of year the news comes, it is spring, the season of liberation. And hope, however fragile, is born anew in the heart of those longing to be free. Despite what the pundits and politicos say about the dangers ahead.

For now the talk is about the danger to stability that Hafez al-Assad's death may bring, as if the Mideast had ever been stable. Surely his eventual successor cannot be worse, whether anointed son or shadowy brother or some now-obscure colonel who can hatch a coup like the one Hafez al-Assad himself pulled 30 years ago. But this being the Middle East, of course, things could get worse.

This much has changed: A glimmer of hope has replaced the iron wall that Hafez al-Assad erected around his country for three decades, There is movement in the sultry air, even if no one can be sure of its direction.

Any pause in the Mideast's belligerence may also be only official. Israel's still-new leader, Ehud Barak, may soon be its former leader if he continues to charge ahead on the road to peace -- and risk.

For now Israel's prime minister is hewing to his course, even as his support in Israel drops off. He promised to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July, and beat the deadline by a month, without waiting for Hafez al-Assad to approve. If the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon had depended on making a deal with Hafez al-Assad, it might never have happened.

Rather than negotiate a peace, General and Prime Minister Barak decided to make it unilaterally. The move was accomplished without Israeli casualties, but not without Israeli misgivings. The hasty retreat took Israel's Christian allies in South Lebanon by surprise. They were caught between taking refuge in Israel and throwing themselves on the tender mercies of their enemies. The spectacle did not bolster Ehud Barak's popularity at home.

What is now to prevent the same Islamic militants who obliged Israel to leave Lebanon from creeping into northern Israel and wreaking the same havoc?

The Israelis have already tried occupying the guerrillas' base of operations in Lebanon, and are sick of it. Instead, they've made it clear that they will hold Lebanon and Syria responsible for any terrorists operating under their aegis. Doubtless, the Israeli air force already has its target list: electric power plants, roads and bridges in Lebanon, plus Syrian military installations there. And in Syria.

Should these plans for an air campaign become more than plans, a full-scale war could easily follow. Whether it comes to that depends on the new Assad, or whoever eventually replaces the old one in Damascus. Because Israel isn't about to withdraw from Israel. Nor suffer the kind of unending guerrilla raids it did for so long in South Lebanon, and in Israel itself before the Six Day War left it with wider borders.

The death of Hafez al-Assad may have raised hopes for peace, but in the Mideast hope seldom comes unmixed with fear.

The Israeli prime minister has also promised to make peace with the Palestinians by September -- and seems just as intent on keeping his word. If negotiations remain in limbo, he is quite capable of withdrawing from the West Bank, too, and declaring peace. But it takes two to make peace, and the net result, as in Lebanon, could be to simply move the battle lines closer to Israel's cities. And they're not far from the borders now.

Peace was a popular promise to make when Ehud Barak was running for office. Then the burdens of occupation weighed heavy, and the risks of withdrawal were abstract. But with each retreat, the risks grow more palpable, and Ehud Barak less popular. His government already begins to wobble, and new elections may be in the offing.

It is one thing for a people to vote for peace, another to make it. What if Israel winds up exchanging land for war? With the death of Hafez al-Assad, it is not just the Syrians who find themselves caught on the cusp between hope and fear, but the Israelis.

Ehud Barak can retain his hold on power, and continue to take risks for peace, even if his moves offend the Syrians and Palestinians. But not if he offends the Israelis. Which figures. His policies do not risk the existence of Lebanon or Syria, or the forthcoming Palestinian state, but only of Israel.

The Israeli leader is gambling that the courage his country long has displayed in war can also bring peace. But how his big gamble turns out is not up to him alone, or to the Israelis alone. That's the Middle East. Which may be the one wry wry editorial comment that is always relevant in that part of the world.

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