Inching Toward Peace

WARREN CHRISTOPHER'S four-day shuttle through the Middle East managed to put a little forward movement back into a stalled peace process.

The Secretary of State's visit to President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus, for example, sealed an agreement for Syrian and Israeli military chiefs of staff to meet on June 27. Security talks between the two countries broke off last December, and the same problem remains: Syria wants complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights before a normalization of relations with Israel, and Israel wants a gradual pull-out after normalization.

The need, as always in the Middle East, is to get the two sides talking so they can inch toward a compromise.

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With regard to the Golan Heights, such a compromise hinges on security arrangements that provide adequate political, as well as military, cover for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Israelis have memories of shells lobbed off the Golan into Galilee, and they have balked at a complete withdrawal from the heights. But the Rabin government has been moving toward such a withdrawal, recognizing it's a price worth paying for peace with Syria.

Israel's security worries can be adequately addressed through a range of options, from the posting of international peacekeepers to the use of high-tech monitoring devices. Israel already has a satellite capable of surveying all of Syria, as well as Iraq and Iran. The chances of a Syrian military surprise from the Golan can be reduced to near zero. For its part, Syria has shown more openness to demilitarization of the heights.

But while the stage may be set, the final act is not at hand. The timing issue will take months of tough negotiating, and Rabin still faces the emotional question of how and when to remove Israeli settlers from the Golan.

With elections in both Israel and the US next year, however, political incentives are at work. Progress with Syria could give Rabin a chance to show that his peace initiatives can have more satisfying results than those reaped so far from the slow back-and-forth with the Palestinians.

The Clinton administration has good reason to want some Middle East momentum, too. A foreign-policy laurel there would be nice to carry into 1996. Everyone active in the peace process, notably the shrewd Mr. Assad, knows it's time to deal.

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