Israel's Window for Peace Is Closing Fast

The 'opening' for Israel, Syria won't last long either, but there's room for optimism

A LOOK inside the negotiations between Israel and Syria make it clear that the two countries are not, as is often reported in the Middle East, in a ''deadlock.''

But throughout the region, and in Washington, the feeling is growing that the ''window of opportunity,'' opened by the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Gulf war, is closing.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is letting it be known that he is ready to cut a deal with Israel. Recently, the Syrian leader told his people (in a speech to his rubber-stamp parliament) that any agreement he reaches with Israel will support Syria's national interests. He will reject a deal designed to please the United States -- and certainly refuse one designed to please Israel.

But Mr. Assad's declaration also suggests he is preparing to defend whatever agreement he reaches with his longtime enemy as an agreement in Syria's best interest. Negotiations between Assad's government and that of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been conducted quietly for more than three years. Six months of face-to-face private talks took place last year in Washington between Syrian Ambassador Walid al-Moualem and Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich.

In recent weeks Syria and Israel have resumed indirect contacts, mediated by President Clinton's US Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross.

In December, Israel and Syria held their first-ever high-level contact, between top generals. But that encounter, which started on a promising note, turned into what Syria considers a disaster.

At the recommendation of Moualem, Assad had sent to Washington his chief of staff, Gen. Hikmat Shihabi, to meet his Israeli counterpart, Gen. Ehud Barak. Observers in the room for their two sessions had the feeling the generals ''knew'' one another well, after years of studying the other side's politics, tactics, and strategy.

The meeting soured, however. In a tense scene at a refreshments table, the Syrian general refused to ''break bread'' with the Israelis, sticking to plain water.

In less than a week, on Jan. 1, General Barak was replaced as Israeli chief of staff. It was a routine rotation of assignments. But to Syria, it looked like a double-cross. Assad recalled Moualem to Damascus for almost two months.

In Washington, Mr. Ross and the ''peace team'' moved quickly to keep the ship from sinking altogether. A letter was crafted for Mr. Clinton's signature urging Assad to return his ambassador to Washington. That Jan. 6 letter became a turning point, triggering in Damascus a soul-searching assessment of the peace process.

Assad, feeling wounded, wrote angrily to Clinton, questioning Rabin's commitment to negotiating an agreement and his willingness and ability to deliver on the promise of ''territory for peace.'' Assad and his aides had been paying close attention to public opinion polls in Israel and knew that support for the peace process had plummeted.

The White House shot back another letter, reassuring Assad that Rabin was ready to negotiate and strong enough politically to deliver on a deal with Syria. Moualem returned to Washington, with authority only to talk with the Americans.

Neither Israel nor Syria wanted to lose an opportunity built over three years of negotiations. With American mediation, the outlines of a Golan Heights agreement had become apparent to both sides.

Syrian and Israeli negotiators had plotted the terms of a future relationship. Precise details of what the two sides have discussed are not yet public, but straddling the border, wherever it was drawn, could be a demilitarized zone approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide -- ''Zone A.'' Beyond that, another 3 to 4 km on each side could become ''Zone B,'' a lightly militarized area.

Security arrangements would be ''equal, balanced, and mutual.'' Once Israel and Syria had proven the workability of these arrangements, a small number of international ''monitors'' could be placed along the Golan border, not necessarily under United Nations mandate, and not necessarily considered ''troops.''

Israel talks publicly about accomplishing ''a withdrawal'' within two to three years. Syria publicly demands completion in one year. But during Clinton's visit to Assad's palace last October, the Syrian leader privately accepted a longer timetable, up to 18 months.

Ross and his ''peace team'' know that neither Assad nor Rabin can be rushed. But the team has told both sides there's enough detail in the talks now to draft a written agreement. Publicly and privately US and Israeli officials say the end of this year is probably the extent of the ''window of opportunity.''

Other factors could still interfere with the Syrian-Israeli negotiations: among them, stepped-up terrorism in Israel, renewed conflict in southern Lebanon, or an unforeseen international event that could distract the United States. Assad and Rabin are not on the verge of a White House handshake. But they are at a crucial moment of decision about whether to trust one another enough to proceed toward the next major Arab-Israeli breakthrough.

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