Israel plans to give up land ...

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak uses an Arabic expression when he describes the cost of possible peace with Syria - dugri - meaning straight.

Before departing for Washington, he addressed the Israeli parliament. "I can't tell you an agreement will be reached without a high price," Mr. Barak told the Knesset, which gave lukewarm support for his mission.

But in his first year in office, Barak has the opportunity to shape what may be Israel's most important peace treaty with an Arab neighbor.

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A deal with Syria could end Israel's war against guerrillas in south Lebanon, and "bring the boys home" by next year. It would also boost Israel's security in the region by easing open the door to relations with the rest of the Arab world.

But he also faces the challenge of persuading the Israeli public is to give up the land they've come to call their own.

Israel occupied the heights in the 1967 Middle East war to prevent the high ground from being used to shell Jewish villages in the Galilee region below.

But more than a military vantage point, the Golan entered the national ethos. People used it for last and even first names, an elite army unit was named after it, and its name got slapped on everything from cheese to wine bottles, all now produced by Israelis on the Golan's fertile soil.

When the first of the now some 17,000 settlers were sent to live there in 1967, Syria was not yet exercising de facto control of Lebanon. Israel didn't know then that in the next three decades, Mr. Assad would run a proxy war with a Lebanese guerrilla group, the Hizbullah, to pressure Israel to withdraw from the Golan.

The Lebanon war cost the Jewish state a steady stream of young soldiers' lives and a roadblock to reaching the peace it craves with the rest of the region.

And despite some emotional and historical attachments, the Golan has never occupied a place in the minds of religious Zionists on par with their visceral attachment to the West Bank, which they see as the biblical promised land of Judea and Samaria. A sober school of thought in the Israeli military establishment began to argue that Israel could afford the risk of returning the Golan. The upshot would be decreasing Israel regional vulnerability by reaching a peace with Syria - thus opening the doors to most of the Arab world and perhaps Iran - all the while growing a more sophisticated defense system to fall back on, with the help of the US.

From this camp came the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his protg, Barak, whose official position is that he will not withdraw to the June 4, 1967, borders. Israeli officials argue that at the very least, they could agree on the international border delineated by British and French colonial powers in 1923, which left the Syrians about 30 feet back from the waterfront.

Moreover, Israel argues since the original 1947 partition plan left Israel in control of the lake's coastline - part of which was later taken by Syria in 1951 - Israel should retain control of it now.

Instead, says Moshe Maoz, an expert on the Israel-Syria conflict at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel will probably propose that for not allowing the Syrians to return to the shores of the lake, it will turn over a junction on the Yarmuk River on the Israeli-Jordanian border.

"Israelis are very fussy about the lake, so the Syrians will have to be stationed a bit away from it," says Mr. Maoz. "It's more psychological than anything, but it's also of strategic importance, and it's the only reservoir in Israel."

Other officials, though, have suggested that since Israel's main concern is over its water access, Barak might agree to allow Syria to regain a portion of the Sea of Galilee if aid for other plans to help Israel's water shortage problems, such as desalinization plants or a pipeline for Turkey, is worked into the accord.

Paramount in Barak's gambit will be his need to bring home an agreement that will enhance Israel's security. First off, he will ask for a cease-fire in Lebanon during negotiations, says Barak's chief of staff, Danny Yatom.

Then, in addition to asking for a reduction of Syria troops in the area between the Golan and Damascus, Barak's aides say he wants Israel to maintain control or at least a presence at an electronic eavesdropping station on Mt. Hermon. In a proposal formulated in 1995 for the Israeli Army by Zvi Stauber, who serves as Barak's foreign-policy adviser, the station was highlighted as a necessity. But since the document does not say that the station must be controlled by Israel, some here suggest that Israel might allow the US to do the monitoring.

And part of Barak's blueprint will include advancing the Israeli military's technological edge over Syria and other neighbors. That, in addition to the cost of moving military bases and compensating most or all of the 17,000 Israelis who make their homes in the Golan, adds up to an expected price tag of between $18 and $20 billion from the US.

And, last there is the peace. The two sides may be coming to the negotiating table with different ideas about what that means.

Talks stalled last time around, Israeli officials say, because Assad did not want full diplomatic ties with open borders; he seemed reluctant to allow Israeli tourists to shop in the open markets of Damascus. But in a possible compromise formula, only small numbers of tourist exchanges would be allowed in the first few years.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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