An extraordinary group of world leaders assembled in Morocco last weekend for the funeral of King Hassan II, who died last week of a heart attack at the age of 70. The turnout, ranging from U.S. President Bill Clinton and his predecessor, Mr. George Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and South African President Thabo Mbeki, was another reminder that international influence is not necessarily related to the size of a country. King Hassan, the leader of a relatively small, North African nation best known as the setting for the Ingrid Bergman-Humphrey Bogart classic film, “Casablanca,” was a key player in the search for peace in the Middle East. His funeral offered the world a final chance to honor his efforts and prod others to finish his work.
The king, a fixture in African and Middle Eastern politics, was an iron-willed monarch during his 38 years on the throne. While human-rights groups complained about his policies, others applauded the stability and vision he brought to a turbulent part of the world. The Moroccan royal family traces its heritage to the prophet Mohamed, and King Hassan considered himself the protector of Muslim sites in Jerusalem. Thus, despite the distance of the royal palace in Rabat from Israel, the king was drawn into the Middle East peace process.
The king was the first Arab leader to break the taboo on contacts with Israel. That move made the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s own breakthrough possible. The Israelis commemorated the king’s courage by sending one of the largest entourages to the funeral, a group that included new Prime Minister Ehud Barak. During the ceremonies, Mr. Barak met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and held an unprecedented meeting with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Even though his country is still technically at war with Israel, Mr. Bouteflika pledged to support and contribute to the peace process.
The king will be succeeded by his eldest son, Sidi Mohamed, who will rule as King Mohamed VI. He is the third in the next generation of Arab leaders to come to power in recent months, following Jordan’s King Abdullah and the new emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. More of such changes are expected: Syria’s president, Mr. Hafez Assad, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, are both ailing. Mr. Arafat is alleged to have health problems; he looked drawn at last weekend’s events.
This younger generation’s outlook is different from that of their fathers’. Often educated in the West, they tend to be more technocratic and less ideological. They are as patriotic as their fathers, but less nationalist. They have grown up with the state of Israel; it is part of the region’s historical and political landscape. All of those changes augur well for the peace process.
The rise of this younger generation will put more pressure on older leaders, such as Egypt’s president, Mr. Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak is the senior statesman/peacemaker in the region and his stature, sense of history and perspective will be much needed in the weeks and months ahead. One of the most important things he can do is reassure Mr. Assad that peace with Israel is the wisest course for his country.
There were hopes that the Syrian president would also attend the funeral. That would have permitted him to meet Mr. Barak. At the last minute, however, Mr. Assad canceled his visit. It is unclear whether he is ill or whether the prospect of just such a meeting deterred him. Although there are growing signs that Mr. Assad is ready to make peace with Israel, the Syrian leader has always worked to ensure that any deal is on his terms. Declining to make the journey to Rabat is Mr. Assad’s way of reminding the world that he will set the pace and tone of negotiations.
When he is ready to move forward, he will have a serious partner in Israel’s new prime minister. After carefully assembling his coalition government, Mr. Barak has plunged into the business of peacemaking, meeting with his Arab counterparts and Mr. Clinton. He has pledged to implement the Wye accord that his predecessor, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, signed with Mr. Arafat.
Since taking office, Mr. Barak has given the peace process a new momentum and a new vitality. Both are welcome. But, in fact, he has done very little. The change in the atmosphere is important, however. Expectations are shifting and this new group of leaders will find that they have a new political environment in which they must work. They will have more freedom to make peace. Their people will expect it.
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