Israel and Syria: Headed for Deal?

As US envoy visits, both Rabin and Assad have reasons to make the right moves

AS a traveling United States official seeks to nudge Israel and Syria closer to peace this week, he will have a powerful argument in hand: Unless the current, promising moment for peace is seized and seized soon, it could perish in the cross-fire of domestic Israeli politics.

It is an argument that is not likely to be lost on the leaders of either country.

Although Israel's next national election is over two years away, it is too close for comfort both for Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. Assad's objective in three years of low-level peace talks with Israel has been to regain control of the Golan Heights, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. He knows that any deal restoring Syrian sovereignty that is not signed and implemented by election day could be repealed if Israel's hard-line Likud party is victorious.

As for Mr. Rabin, a peace with Syria based on full diplomatic recognition of Israel by Damascus - the precondition to any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan - could be crucial to the electoral hopes of his own Labor Party.

``Both sides are aware of the pressures,'' says Dore Gold of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. ``Both sides have huge reasons to move quickly and face possible big losses if they don't.''

``We have a time frame that won't last forever,'' concurs a senior source in Israel's Foreign Ministry. ``We'd better make the best of it while we can.''

State Department Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross will arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow for talks with Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, following a stopover in Damascus.

He will scarcely need to remind Syrian officials that the fruits of peace with Israel could also include better relations with the US, including possible economic aid. Nor will Rabin need reminding that a deal with Damascus could also win a pledge from Syria to expel pro-Iranian Hizbullah forces from southern Lebanon, where they have been a constant threat to Israel.

Over the past several months, Assad and Rabin have dropped hints at home and to each other that the time for a breakthrough may be ripe.

In the most recent exchange, Rabin spoke of the possibility of a ``slight'' withdrawal from the Golan within three years, with any further pullback pegged to a full normalization of relations. Assad responded in a speech in which he voiced ``some hope that peace would become a reality.''

``It's very nice but it's no breakthrough, which can only come through negotiations,'' the Foreign Ministry official says.

The official says Israel would like to engage Syria on two levels: public ministerial-level meetings supplemented by a ``calm, secret channel of real business.'' Assad, who favors US mediation, has rejected both ideas.

If wider diplomatic channels are opened, the biggest task will be to synchronize timetables. Syria wants a rapid Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and a slow normalization of relations with the Jewish state. Israel wants just the reverse.

Another challenge will be posed by the issue of water. As part of any final settlement, Israeli sources say, Syria would have to agree not to obstruct the flow of the Binyas River, the main tributary of the Jordan that flows into Israel. Water, which has been a source of conflict in the past, could ideally become a boon to cooperation in the future, Israeli sources say.

A breakthrough will also depend on defining mutually acceptable security arrangements. When Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, starting in 1979, 125 miles of mountainous desert provided the strategic depth both sides needed to protect themselves in case the peace collapsed.

In the Golan, a mere 18 miles across, limits on the number of forces in designated areas will have to substitute for depth. Israeli sources say such limitations would have to be asymmetrical and would have to extend beyond the Golan to the doorstep of Damascus - an idea unlikely to go down well in the Syrian capital.

Negotiators may also have to make arrangements for military ``listening posts'' on each other's territory and for a US or international peacekeeping force, which Israel says will be essential to guarantee the peace.

Since 1967, the region of striking green hillsides and lush plateaus has become home to 13,000 Jewish settlers, who will be forced to move if and when the strategic territory is returned. Rabin would need nothing less than a full peace with Syria in hand before he could credibly ask them to relocate, Israeli sources say.

According to one recent Israeli public-opinion poll, over 60 percent of all Israelis favor territorial compromise on the Golan in exchange for peace, but most experts consider the majority fragile.

ASSAD is under considerable pressure because he has been diplomatically outmaneuvered by Israel. When the current peace process began in Madrid in 1990, the Jewish state was arrayed simultaneously against all of its Arab adversaries. Since then, Israel has managed to turn the process into a series of seriatim negotiations in which the Palestinians and later Jordan agreed to peace, leaving Syria isolated.

``We succeeded in changing negotiations to a pattern that is convenient to us,'' says a former senior Israeli official.

Paradoxically, peace prospects could be jeopardized when attention turns to Lebanon, the only other front-line Arab state that has not made peace with Israel. In its determination to rid Israel of the Syrian threat, the Rabin government has opted to ignore the troubling issue of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. But the Clinton administration is under pressure from Arab-American groups not to let Lebanese sovereignty be a casualty of the peace process.

``That creates a separate agenda for the US and Syria that could distract from the bilateral negotiations between Israel and Syria,'' notes Dore Gold. ``In order to make a Golan deal work, the US has to sell out Lebanon's sovereignty; if it seeks to preserve Lebanese sovereignty, it may torpedo a Golan deal.''

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