Next Up: a Handshake Between Shimon Peres and Hafez al-Assad

An Israel-Syria summit could help cut through the thicket of security concerns and set the stage for a peace agreement

ACTING Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was correct when he said his Labor Party would be making a grave mistake if it stalled on peace talks with Syria while campaigning in the national elections. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa responded in kind, saying, ''Syria is ready for the achievement of a breakthrough in the negotiations.''

Indeed, the tragic death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has created an atmosphere more conducive to reaching an agreement in Israel and Syria. On the one hand, Rabin's departure has engendered a new uncertainty, demonstrating some of the dangerous schisms within Israeli society and heightening anxieties about the prospects for peace both in Jerusalem and in Damascus.

On the other hand, the evil that struck down Rabin has galvanized Israel's silent majority and brought it to the fore. A recent public opinion poll published by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot showed a sharp swing (54 percent) toward Labor in support of the policy exchanging territory for peace, and 23 percent against. Some 74 percent of those polled said the government should proceed with the implementation of the Oslo II agreement.

The question now is how Mr. Peres as prime minister and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad will translate the new political environment into a breakthrough in the peace talks. Diplomats on both sides warn that if an agreement is not achieved in a few months and the Likud Party wins the next Israeli elections, there will be little or no hope for reaching an accord with Syria, with all the grave consequences that failure implies.

Peres faces a problem: He is perceived as soft on matters of national security, and there is lingering concern about his presumed overzealousness to achieve peace at any price. Certainly the prime minister can do much to allay the Israelis' anxiety, but he may also trigger a backlash in Israel if he moves too quickly to achieve an agreement with Syria without first getting some dramatic conciliatory gesture from Mr. Assad.

Israeli defense

For Peres the choices are clear: He must first expand his coalition base to ensure a wider margin of voting safety in the Knesset, which is critical to the passage of any official resolution or legislation on the Golan. He must choose a strong military man as a defense minster, and show both in words and in deeds that Israel's defense establishment fully supports any territorial concession he may make.

The one thing that will give Israelis the comfort they need to withdraw eventually from the Golan must come from Assad himself. The Syrian leader, who often accused Rabin of hindering the talks and had refused to meet with him, should now reconsider his position with Peres, whom he finds a more amiable partner in the negotiations.

To that end Assad should meet openly with Peres. As foreign minister, Peres publicly acknowledged Syrian sovereignty over the Golan. Now, once Assad signals his readiness to meet, Peres will be in a position to reiterate that position. If nothing else is accomplished, the images generated from such an encounter, under the banner of ''full withdrawal for full peace,'' would have a highly important psychological impact on both Israelis and Syrians.

Although the official goal of the goodwill meeting should be modest and attainable, such a historic event would develop a life of its own.

A new dynamic

Since both sides have declared their willingness to speed up the talks, a public meeting between Assad and Peres could go a long way toward shifting even more public support toward Peres. It would create a new dynamic and bypass difficult procedural issues, focusing on substantive ones.

A summit could cut through the thicket of security issues and set the stage for an agreement. Israel's demands for early warning stations, at the center of the deadlock, and other security issues could be viewed in a different light against the background of an Assad-Peres meeting.

The summit, in short, would deal with Israelis' lack of trust in Syria, which is at the heart of the problem. Granted, five decades of mutual fear and distrust can't be wiped out in one day. A Peres-Assad meeting, however, could create critically important images of reconciliation, effectively disarming many of those who question Peres's security background.

The political climate in Syria is riper for peace today than it was four years ago. As long as Assad states his position in advance of a meeting with Peres (following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's example), he stands to lose nothing. Rather, Assad could eliminate many of the remaining psychological barriers that prevent the majority of Israelis from supporting full withdrawal.

Finally, an equitable agreement that ensures Israel's security would help Peres's prospects for reelection. It would serve Syria's interest in particular if Peres were reelected by ensuring continuity and full implementation of the peace agreement.

Assad should remember that with all the misgivings about the Oslo I agreement, the picture that left an indelible mark and swayed the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians was the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the front lawn of the White House.

Peres has little choice but to listen to the public pulse. That way he will, like his predecessor, avoid making any move that the majority of the public clearly still fears. An Assad-Peres public meeting could make the difference.

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