A STRONG Israeli public consensus in support of withdrawal from the Golan Heights is critical to any Israeli-Syrian agreement. That consensus is currently lacking. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin must work separately and together to sway Israeli public opinion in that direction. Otherwise, it is unlikely that Israel and Syria would reach an agreement anytime soon.
In Israel, as in many other democracies, public opinion plays a direct and crucial role in the government's decisionmaking process. Mr. Rabin has done poorly in educating the public on the need and rationale for paying a ``painful price'' for peace and left the field wide open to continued onslaughts by right-wing opposition groups led by the Likud Party against the government's ``misguided'' policy.
Likud has been successful in galvanizing public opinion against extensive withdrawal, effectively tying Rabin's hands at the negotiating table. Moreover, Rabin's inability to implement Phase 1 of the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization agreement has left many Israelis unsure of their government's direction, further deepening their cynicism and distrust of the whole process.
Rabin's idea of putting any agreement with Syria on the Golan to a referendum is misleading. Although a referendum could buy Rabin some time and put pressure on Mr. Assad to be more forthcoming, it still is not a substitute for cultivating Israeli public consensus and confidence. It is, in fact, an escape. Rabin justifies the referendum on grounds that the extent of the projected withdrawal will exceed what the Labor Party's platform stipulates, hence the need for a public referendum.
Peace with Syria is not a Labor or Likud issue but a national issue charged with psychological and security implications that affect most Israelis. Rabin should prepare the Israeli public to accept the best possible deal he can strike with Syria. He must tell the Israelis that, with advanced technologies, strategic territory holds considerably diminished value. Only peace, with normal Arab-Israeli relations plus a credible military deterrence, will provide Israel with long-term security. The Israelis need to know that there are no other viable options and that withdrawal from the Golan is the ultimate price for peace. A referendum rejecting such an agreement with Syria would be counterproductive and even dangerous, and a referendum that would endorse such an agreement is not necessary.
Syrian officials reject an Israeli referendum on Syrian territory on the grounds that it is against international law, inconsistent with United Nations Resolution 242 and the guidelines that governed the initial Madrid peace conference. The fact that neither the withdrawal from the Sinai nor the Israeli-PLO agreement were submitted to a referendum adds further credence to their argument. But rejecting the referendum does not nullify the critical importance of Israeli public opinion.
Assad continues to ignore the importance of Israeli public opinion. As Israelis search for signs of reconciliation emanating from Damascus, they come across Syrian positions and attitudes that portend only to the contrary. Israeli officials cite the Syrian handlers' adamant refusal to allow Israeli journalists to attend President Clinton's and Assad's press conference in Geneva. Assad had a golden opportunity, they argue, to appear in the flesh and show willingness to tear down the old instead of erecting new barriers but chose not to do so. In an answer to a question during the press conference, Assad refused to elaborate on what he meant by ``normal relations,'' further disappointing many Israelis who wanted to believe that Israeli-Syrian relations had entered the phase of reconciliation.
Assad needs to be more open and forthcoming. Unlike Assad, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat understood the Israeli disposition and acted on it with astonishing results. When he journeyed to Jerusalem, Sadat tore down the psychological barriers in one stroke and captured the imaginations of a multitude of Israelis who responded with open hearts.
Assad must go beyond sound bites. His statement that peace with Israel is a ``strategic asset'' to Syria and his public utterance of ``normal relations'' with Israel are two most significant developments. Yet, following decades of mutual enmity, fear, and distrust a growing number of Israelis remains deeply skeptical of Syria's intent. They are looking for human manifestations of Assad's ``peace of the brave.''
The Syrian leader need not go to Jerusalem but he could invite a group of Israeli academics and journalists to Damascus to hear him making the case for Syria's insistence on recovering all of the Golan and Syria's commitment to attain equitable peace and mutual security. He can invite or get invited by Rabin to meet anywhere without breaking any taboos or taking personal risk and without compromising one single inch of territory.
In order for the Israelis to give up a tangible security asset that the Golan has represented for what many still consider an elusive peace, they must first go through a process of learning and confidence-building. Rabin must assume the task of educating the Israelis, disabusing the public of the notion that the Golan and national security are synonymous. Assad must join the battle to win over Israeli public opinion by reaching out to the Israelis and allowing human relations to take their course. 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.