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It's a topsy-turvy world: The Syrian president is begging for peace, the Israeli prime minister is refusing - if not peace, then at least the price that must be paid for it - and the American president is coming down on the side not of Syrian eagerness but of Israeli cynicism. On the face of it, George Bush and Ariel Sharon appear to be in sync. In reality, there is a minor - but crucial - difference between the Israeli aversion to dialogue with Syria, due to the certainty of the price that would eventually be exacted, and the American tactic of "Iraq First."

As always, Washington would like to see the Israeli-Arab peace expanded. An Israeli settlement with Syria, Lebanon and perhaps Saudi Arabia and other states as well would flatter Bush's efforts to change the face of the Middle East, particularly at a time when the chances of a durable permanent settlement in the Palestinian arena are so slim. American reliance on the Resolution 242 formula - territories for peace - has not waned: Once an Arab side prepared to make peace presents itself, Israel will have to return all its territories.

The change is not in the substance, but in the pace and the order, because America's chief concern at present is Iraq - the safeguarding of American forces there. So long as Assad does nothing to prevent cells of militants who attack Americans from infiltrating across his border with Iraq, so long as he does not desist from his support for Hezbollah (due to the organization's hostility toward Israel, of course, but primarily because it is an enemy of the Americans, and the head of its `special operations branch,' Imad Mughniyeh, is nearly as sought after as Osama bin Laden), Bush is in no great rush to ease the pressure.

Negotiations with Israel leading to a return of the Golan? Absolutely, but the first order of business is to stop Syria's interference in Iraq, halt its aid to terrorist groups and disarm its weapons of mass destruction. In his effort to be erased from the "Axis of Evil," Assad is offering shekels, but Bush is demanding Iraqi dinars. The road to the Golan now passes through Baghdad, and the granting of another victory to Bush in his global war on terror, this time in the Syrian theater: Hezbollah and the Palestinian organizations under Syrian protection.

Sharon, who in 1956 was commander of the paratrooper brigade whose soldiers murdered Egyptian prisoners of war at Mitla Pass in Sinai and during the long march along the Gulf of Suez coast to A-Tur, would be bitter if Egypt broke off relations with Israel only because the former brigade commander was now the prime minister. As a former commander of the Golani reconnaissance unit and an intelligence officer in the Northern Command in the early 1950s, and as chief of staff of the Northern Command when the battles broke out in the mid-1960s over the Syrians' diversion of the headwaters of the Jordan, Ariel Sharon is well aware of Israel's shared responsibility for the deterioration along the Syrian front. All of a sudden, he is now assailed by memories of the torture of Israelis at Tadmor and Mazze. Based on that logic, Menachem Begin was wrong to make peace with Anwar Sadat, who in 1973 killed more Israelis than were lost in any of Israel's other wars.

In spite of his obdurate father's legacy, it may be that, belatedly and due to changing circumstances, Bashar Assad has reached the same conclusion as Sadat, who made the decision to break away from his predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser, and approach the Americans. The more sober Arab leaders are interested in Washington, not Jerusalem.

The military dispute in Lebanon between the Reagan administration and the Hafez Assad regime in 1983, which included the shooting down of American planes and the capture of navigator Robert Goodman in Damascus, did not stop the Bush Sr. administration from enlisting Assad in the war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, or from repaying him through the Madrid Conference, whose goal was to restore the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace.

That plan hit a snag when Warren Christopher and Bill Clinton succeeded James Baker and Bush Sr. But now Baker is wielding influence again, either directly or through his spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, who is Colin Powell's deputy, with responsibility for explaining America's case to Muslims and Arabs. And the Baker Institute is active in the background, along with retired ambassador Edward Djerejian, who is responsible for the Syrian-Israeli back channel, in which there is said to be "agreement on 80 to 90 percent of the disagreements."

Whether Sharon likes it or not, renewal of the talks with Syria is imminent. The only thing standing between Sharon (or his successor) and Assad is Iraq.