THE key to progress in the Israeli-Syrian-US talks may, ironically, first appear in an agreement on south Lebanon - not the disputed Golan Heights.
During his recent visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a private discussion with President Clinton, suggested that an "interim step" dealing with Lebanon be concluded between Jerusalem and Damascus that would put an end to the "quiet war" between Israel and Hizbullah in the south.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, like Mr. Peres, has already begun to think beyond a deal on the Golan to molding the future strategic alignment of the region to his advantage. Israeli recognition of Syrian interests in Lebanon is central to the picture Mr. Assad would like to draw.
For Peres, a deal on Lebanon is one element in a grand scheme for a regional alignment directed against Tehran.
With Israelis saying a deal on the Golan is at least six months away, this is the interim deal Peres suggested: de facto Israeli recognition of Syrian presence in Lebanon in return for a) an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon; b) Syrian guarantees to some degree of integration of Israel's proxy militia - the South Lebanon Army (SLA) - into Lebanon's national forces; and c) an end to Hizbullah's cross-border warfare against Israel.
Shift from Rabin position
According to the Peres formulation, first reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, this arrangement would proceed independent of the main theater of Israeli-Syrian discussions on the Golan front; there would be no explicit linkage between implementation of Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon and resolution of the territorial dispute over the Golan.
The Peres offer marks a significant change from the policy pursued by Yitzhak Rabin's government, reflecting a modification not only in the style but also in the substance of Israel's position.
First and foremost, Rabin saw strategic value in delinking Lebanon from Syria, and only reluctantly concluded that Israel's occupation of south Lebanon would be resolved as part of a package deal with Syria.
Peres appears ready to exploit for mutual Israeli and Syrian advantage what Rabin only grudgingly accepted. He would cede Lebanon "as part of Syria's regional peripheral control" - a major strategic victory for Assad.
Peres wants to achieve a negotiated end to Hizbullah attacks on Israeli troops before Israel's elections sometime this year. During 1995 almost as many Israeli and SLA soldiers were killed as Hizbullah fighters. But Israel and its proxy - the SLA - have suffered more than twice as many wounded as Hizbullah, according to information presented by the Israeli Defense Forces to the Knesset recently. Since 1968, over 3,700 rockets have been fired at Israel's border villages, killing 34 and injuring 312.
By suggesting a new Israeli policy to Mr. Clinton, Peres is rejecting policies that, like his own, aim at ending the threat posed by Hizbullah, but also rely upon an expansion of the war.
There is a view strongly held by many in Israel that the "understandings" reached after Israel's August 1993 expansion of the war against Hizbullah are no longer operative. They believe that just as Hizbullah feels free to target Israeli civilians, so too should Israel abandon its commitment to avoid targeting Lebanese civilians. Only in this way, it is argued, will the balance of terror shift in Israel's favor. And only by expanding war will Syria be convinced of the price to be paid for aiding Hizbullah's operations.
No military solution
Peres is not immune to such considerations. After the most recent upsurge in the war in late November, he declared, "Hizbullah is playing with fire without thinking of the results of this game. There is no unilateral understanding, the understanding is not with ourselves. If the other side does not honor it, we will draw conclusions." His chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, added, "Hizbullah jeopardizes the safety of thousands of residents of south Lebanon."
Yet it is difficult to maintain that a military escalation against Hizbullah and the population of the south would be anything but an expression of pique, when there is nearly unanimous agreement that there is no military solution to the war. It is not likely therefore that Peres will adopt the view of the mayor of the border town of Kiryat Shimona, who suggested that driving another 300,000 refugees northward to Beirut might be more effective in winter than it was after Israel's summer 1993 attack.
Reports of Peres's offer to "recognize" Syria's hold on Lebanon met with outrage from the Lebanese, who view it as merely the latest undermining of their power to control their own national destiny. Syria has not yet responded, and the US, perhaps for that reason, is downplaying reports that it will be a central feature of the Syrian track.
One Israeli official was clearly irritated by a question about Peres's plan. "It's a stupid idea to discuss it now and in public," he said. His sensitivity indicates that the prospect of an early deal on Lebanon shouldn't be dismissed.