Tension between Syria and Israel complicates search for Mideast peace

The war of nerves between Syria and Israel is adding urgency and uncertainty to the frail Mideast peace process. At the root of this tension is Syria's recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles along its border with Lebanon. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said over the weekend that the Syrian missile deployment is ``a new reality'' that ``embodies a danger of escalation.''

Right now, the Israelis are keeping their distance from the Syrian missile sites. But both sides are braced for the day when Israeli jets, which fly regular reconaissance missions over Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, get too close and the Syrians decide to take action.

Adding to Israel's sense of discomfort are the apparently improving ties between Syria and neighboring Jordan. The Israeli-Syrian standoff has unfolded as Jordan's King Hussein prepares to visit Damascus for his first meeting with President Hafez Assad since 1980.

Mr. Assad's argument that the Arabs should spurn United States efforts to start negotiations with Israel and wait instead to deal with Israel from a position of political and military strength has gained new force in the wake of the missile crisis.

Syria began deploying the Soviet-made missiles after Israelis jets shot down two Syrian jets on Nov. 19. Israeli officials reported the missile placements a week ago, saying they threaten Israeli reconnaissance flights monitoring over the Bekaa Valley. The Syrians say the missiles, which are on Syrian territory, will not be moved. The Israelis have said they will continue their reconnaissanace flights and will respond if the missiles are fired.

By downing the Syrian jets, the Israelis provided Assad with fresh evidence of what the Arabs see as Israel's aggressiveness and arrogance. This tends to make King Hussein's efforts to reach a negotiating table with the help of the US now seem, at best, premature to the Arab world -- whose solid backing Hussein says he needs to proceed.

Two months ago, officials close to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres were optimistic that negotiations would begin in a matter of months between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team under the auspices of an international conference.

That optimism is now gone, replaced with worry about the continuing rapprochement between Jordan and Syria. The Israelis hint that secret diplomacy is keeping the Mideast peace process alive. But they acknowledge that the most serious obstacles -- the nature of an international conference and Palestinian representation in negotiations -- remain unresolved.

``There are many channels of progress, mainly in the sphere of secret diplomacy, but it means nothing if it does not blossom into public diplomacy,'' one senior Israeli official says.

Hussein has suffered several setbacks to the peace initiative he launched with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat early this year. Mr. Arafat has kept Hussein waiting for weeks to hear the PLO's answer on whether it will accept two United Nations Security Council Resolutions that call for Israel's withdrawal from occupied territories in return for peace.

Jordan, the US, and Israel consider these resolutions as the basis for peace negotiations. But Mr. Peres heads a coalition government with the hard-line Likud bloc that is adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions to Jordan in return for peace.

Hussein may decide soon, say Western diplomats here, that the best course for Jordan is to abandon the process altogether and grow closer to its strong and dangerous neighbor, Syria.

The deeply divided Israeli government seems incapable of coming up with any new initiatives that might bolster the King's confidence in Israeli intentions.

Hirsch Goodman, defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, recently scored the government for resorting to military action -- such as bombing the PLO's Tunisian headquarters in October and shooting down the Syrian jets -- rather than pursuing a consistent diplomatic initiative in the region.

``It is axiomatic that these avenues are going to have to be explored with increased vigour as Israel's ability to provide military answers to long-term security challenges erodes,'' Mr. Goodman wrote. ``But diplomacy does not seem to be the course of the . . . government.''

Israel insists that the downing of the Syrian jets was an ``operational decision'' made the Israeli pilots and has passed a quiet message via the US to the Syrians saying the incident was an isolated one. But the Syrians were not mollified. Assad maintains a large military presence in Lebanon and is in the midst of putting the finishing touches on a political settlement between the warring Lebanese factions. The small but seemingly permanent Israeli military presence in southern Lebanon and Israel's insistence on its right to patrol the Lebanese skies gall the Syrian leader.

Israel's choice now, say analysts here, is to accept Syria's missile redeployment and avoid confrontation for the moment.

But the missile crisis has underscored Hussein's insistence that if no way is found to push the peace process forward, the regional status quo will almost certainly deteriorate.

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