AS Arabs and Israelis prepare themselves for the upcoming round of Middle East peace talks in June, attention once again focuses on which party is most likely to produce a new initiative. The safest assumption is: not Syria.
Regional leaders have told me in recent weeks that they believe Israelis and Palestinians should be able to reach an interim agreement this year. This will be good in itself. Equally important, such an agreement will provide an incentive for Syria to develop its thoughts about the meaning of full peace and will relieve Jordan and Lebanon of their inhibitions about negotiating a final settlement. The problems that each of these three has with Israel are much less complex than are those of the Palestinians .
President Hafez al-Assad resents that Syria's negotiations should be held hostage to those of any other party, but at this juncture we should not wait for him.
Mr. Assad is heading toward negotiations with Israel carefully and deliberately. He has sent several signals indicating Syria's new orientation by making changes in Syrian rhetoric. These changes tend to be too lightly dismissed by American commentators. Fortunately the Israelis pay them more heed. They took careful note last summer of Assad's statement about Syrian readiness for the "peace of the brave" and, more recently, that Syria will give "full peace for full withdrawal." They also appreciated that
he instructed his delegation last fall to present a paper outlining Syria's position on the principles for an Israeli-Syrian settlement. Although Israelis found its terms unacceptable, they recognized the significance of Syria having tabled a paper.
Assad has placed two basic conditions on the outcome of Syria's negotiations with Israel. The first is that a Syrian-Israeli settlement must form part of a comprehensive settlement between Israel and all those with whom it is negotiating: Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. The second is that Syria regain sovereignty over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. If those basic conditions are met, there should be no insuperable problems once Syrian-Israeli talks begin, though the talks will be
tough and extended.
Assad has explicitly said he has no set timetable in mind and his two basic conditions can be implemented in stages. The current debate in Israel about the possibility of reaching peace with Syria is wide ranging. What was unthinkable a short time ago is now a topic of public debate. But Israeli mistrust of Syrian intentions runs deep. That mistrust is mirrored in Damascus, which views Israel's military presence on the Heights as a direct threat. Only 50 miles of flat terrain separate the present cease-f ire lines from the Syrian capital.
FOR now, Assad will likely withhold any new initiative. He is by no means convinced that Israel will agree to a complete withdrawal from the Heights. He has heard Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin speak of withdrawal "on" Golan but not of withdrawal "from" Golan.
Mr. Rabin is not likely even to hint at full withdrawal from Golan until he receives considerably more detailed proposals from Damascus to help persuade the skeptical Israeli public that Syria is serious about peace.
Assad cannot conceive of a "full peace" with Israel that does not return to Damascus sovereignty over the whole of the Golan Heights. He will not accept less in this regard than the late President Anwar Sadat achieved in 1979 by regaining Egyptian sovereignty over all of Sinai. Nor can he conceive of a separate peace with Israel that ignores the Palestinians. The Syrian president can sit on his hands until Israel commits itself to a full withdrawal from Golan. To counter this, Washington should concentra te on helping Israel and the Palestinians negotiate an interim agreement on autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.