Syria-Israel Deal Propels Peace In the Mideast

Damascus concedes on a buffer zone

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THE stop-and-go Mideast peace process received a forward jolt with Syria and Israel reaching a first-ever framework agreement on security in the strategic Golan Heights.

But an apparent concession by Syria may not be enough to ensure a complete agreement for a partial or full Israeli withdrawal from the 18-mile-wide strip, which Israel seized as a military buffer zone in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, with talks set to resume by the end of June, both sides are under pressure to seal a deal before scheduled November 1996 Israeli elections, in which the right-wing Likud Party could win and halt the peace process.

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The United States-brokered accord, announced Wednesday, helps restart talks that have been suspended for six months. Negotiations between Syria and Israel first began in 1991. The breakthrough follows recent visits to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, plus several exchanges between the ambassadors of the two countries.

Syria dropped its demand that the two sides pull their troops back an ''identical'' distance from the Golan -- a symmetry Israel rejected because it is a far smaller country.

Instead, both sides will now seek ''mutual'' security zones.

''Syria has pressed for equality in the entire package and in each element,'' says Robert Satlof, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. ''Israel says equality is not necessary in each element, but you can still end up with an equal package.''

Israel's acceptance of a formula that accommodates its concerns opens the way for a new talks between Syria and Israel. The agreement follows Mr. Rabin's decision to halt a planned confiscation of Arab land in East Jerusalem for Jewish housing, which has sparked strong US and Arab reaction.

In Jerusalem, Israeli leaders echoed statements by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher calling the agreement an ''important development.''

But both Israel and Syria are operating with the knowledge that unless some agreement is reached soon, any chance for peace could fall victim to domestic politics in 1996 Israeli national elections.

Mr. Rabin knows that a peace with Syria based on full diplomatic recognition of Israel by Damascus could be crucial to his own reelection hopes.

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is also mindful of the ancillary benefits of peace: better relations with the US, the belated removal of Syria from the US list of terrorist states, and possible US economic aid.

Any deal that requires a US military presence on the Golan Heights will face fierce opposition among influential conservatives on Capitol Hill.

A multilateral peacekeeping force has operated in the Sinai desert since the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt without incident and at comparatively little cost.

A similar mission in the Golan, which Clinton administration officials have said they would support, would be more complicated. In the Sinai, 125 miles of mountainous desert provided the strategic depth both sides needed to protect themselves in case the peace collapsed.

But the Golan is a mere 18 miles wide. To compensate for the lack of depth, partial or total limits would have to be placed on the number of forces allowed in designated areas. Israeli sources say such limitations would have to extend beyond the Golan to the doorstep of Damascus, an idea unlikely to be accepted there.

US mediators managed to ''finesse'' differences in the Israeli and Syrian position in an unpublished understanding, Israeli sources say.

And Rabin yesterday sought to lower expectations arising from the agreement. ''There are disagreements on the main issues of each subject, without which we can't reach a peace agreement.''

He said that a dispute persists on the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, the timetable for the withdrawal, and the timing of Israeli normalization of ties with Syria.

Israel also has demanded that Syria give Israel full diplomatic recognition shortly after the two sides reach a peace agreement, while Syria wants to wait until the end of the withdrawal process.

Despite the still-broad areas of disagreement, right-wing Israeli politicians and Golan Heights settlers reacted with alarm at the news of the recent diplomatic advances between the Jewish and the Arab states.

The hard-line Likud Party called on Rabin to make a full disclosure of the understandings with Syria and submit them for parliamentary debate. Yehuda Wolman, chairman of the Golan Heights Regional Council stated, ''I'm sure that any Israeli government that will return the Golan Heights will fall, even if it returns just one settlement.''

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