A TOP Syrian official actively involved in Middle East peace negotiations told me that, following United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visits to the area in early August, Syria and Israel were almost ready to conclude a declaration of principles leading to an agreement. It was a two-part document: First, a declaration of principles - ``Full withdrawal for full peace'' - that would have obligated Israel to give up all of the Golan, and Syria to offer a comprehensive peace in return. And second, an agenda for negotiating the comprehensive peace, including establishment of several committees that would deal with mutual security, military issues, the settlements, and peaceful relations.
Israel, my source emphatically added, would not have had to withdraw from a single inch of territory before Syria spelled out its concept of ``full peace'' and established a mutual security arrangement. The source said, ``Syria is ready to resume its negotiations on that basis now and sign a similar document without any delay.''
While the Israeli and Syrian delegates were putting final touches on the accord in early August, Israel was not sure the secret negotiations would bear fruit. Two weeks later, the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement was concluded.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin then made a tactical decision to freeze the Syrian track in favor of accelerating the process with the Palestinians. Unsettled Israeli public opinion regarding the Golan and Mr. Rabin's negotiating strategy to play on enmity between Palestinians and Syrians to extract greater concessions have contributed to Rabin's sudden shift away from the Syrian front.
The Clinton administration went along with the Israelis, heeding Rabin's request ``not to overload the Israeli circuit with Arafat in Jericho and Hafez Assad on the Golan Heights.''
During his visit to Israel and Syria, Mr. Christopher will find a troubled Rabin facing a public disenchanted with the peace progress, and an anxious Syrian President Assad who is hard pressed to re-insert himself into the peace process. He may also find Rabin and Assad in need of each other to put a dramatic spin on the peace process by producing an agreement of their own. Christopher could greatly assist in bringing this about, bearing in mind three critical factors:
First, the formula of ``full withdrawal for full peace'' remains the only basis on which a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace could be erected. Both Syria and Israel must recognize each other's predicaments. Assad must be fully cognizant of Israel's national security concerns. Peaceful relations that would include trade, cultural, and diplomatic relations would go a long way to allay those concerns. Rabin must recognize that only total withdrawal from the Golan, similar to the withdrawal from Sinai, would remove the main barrier between Israel and Syria and make possible the comprehensive and durable peace that Rabin is seeking.
For Syria, total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, in accordance with United Nations Resolution 242, is the principle requirement that will remove the stigma of the 1967 war and restore Syria's national pride.
Second, although Syria has neither actively undermined nor supported the Israeli-PLO agreement, Syria's continued disengagement could complicate matters for Jordan and the PLO. Reaching an Israeli-Syrian agreement now would make way for Jordan's King Hussein to sign and act upon his pact with Israel, and it would certainly bolster the troubled Israeli-PLO agreement. Moreover, Syria is extremely well positioned to inhibit many opposition groups, be they from the left or the right, from undermining the peace process as long as Syria has a vested interest in it.
Third, unlike the US's marginal involvement in the Israeli-PLO agreement, the Clinton administration needs to become a full partner in the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Both Syria and Israel look to the US for support of any agreement they may reach. For Syria this would mean, among other things, its removal from the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism - making it eligible for American investments and loans, procurement of advanced technologies, and continued US political support for Syria's special place in Lebanon.
For Israel this would translate to continued economic, political, and military support from the US, with emphasis on maintaining the Israeli military's technological edge over the Arabs, and direct US involvement in long-term regional security.
Rabin has consistently refused to commit himself to a total withdrawal from the Golan. Once such a commitment is made, he argues, it would be impossible to retract. This argument presupposes that there may be other ways of making peace with Syria without the complete return of the Golan.
Here is where Rabin is mistaken. Assad will not make peace without recovering the entire Golan; but then, Assad knows that he cannot recover the Golan without offering Israel full peace and satisfactory security arrangements.
Rabin knows that he can accept the principle of ``full withdrawal for full peace'' and throw the ball back into the Syrian court without giving up a single inch of territory. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.