Barak's Hard Place
Why America should calm down about the new Israeli prime minister.
4The instability of Syria and the Palestinian Authority. Syrian strongman Hafez Assad is old and ailing. His son and heir, Bashar, is inexperienced (he's an ophthalmologist by training). Assad's ruling Alawites are a tenuous minority, only 11 percent of the population. Syria's former patron, the Soviet Union, is dead. Syria's economy is totally broken. As long as Assad lives, he can manage these troubles and keep an agreement with Israel. But if he dies, it's not clear that Syria can control Lebanon or that the Golan border will remain peaceful.
The Palestinian situation is more perilous. Arafat is also ailing and has no clear successor. His authoritarian rule has prevented the emergence of future leaders and the development of strong civic and political institutions. Extremists (such as Hamas) and moderates are already jockeying for power. The Palestinian economy is a disaster, devastated by Israeli limits on Palestinians working in Israel. The return of hundreds of thousands of destitute Palestinian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Jordan will only compound the economic misery.
So if Barak gets his final deal with the Palestinians, Israel may find itself with a new kind of problem: an autonomous Palestinian state, a stone's throw (literally) from sacred Israeli territory, that is sinking into Third World poverty, anarchy, and civil war. This could be a peace, even a good peace, but it won't be cause for euphoria.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.