As Talks Near, Syria and Israel Circle Each Other

Big question in Damascus: 'Does Netanyahu want peace?'

Deadlocked peace talks between Syria and Israel have all the elements of a cold-war thriller: As the drums of war beat in the background, the enemies remain locked in rhetorical battle over "sacred" issues. Negotiators trade accusations of stonewalling and put their own spin on achievements of past talks - even as they reaffirm their love of peace.

President Clinton wants to focus on Israel and Syria striking a deal, the last major hurdle in the US-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process. And Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu says he will raise "various ideas" for breaking the deadlock with Syria at a White House meeting with Mr. Clinton on Thursday.

Previous optimism that a pact was on the verge of success in 1996 - based on a disputed Israeli commitment to fully withdraw from the Golan Heights - has all but vanished.

Israeli news reports last week claimed an agreement could have been signed in October 1996, which included "generous territorial concessions" for Syria. But former Prime Minister Shimon Peres denied that he ever gave any "geographical indications about the depth of our withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

The cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union - bringing a nonviolent end to that edge-of-your-seat saga - but such a straightforward conclusion is unlikely in today's Mideast drama.

Syria insists peace is its "strategic option," and its demand of full Israeli withdrawal has been constant since Israel took over the Golan in 1967. It will continue negotiations, officials say, if five years of sporadic talks resume where Israel broke them off last year.

Before the talks ended, Israeli and Syrian Army chiefs of staff had met to hammer out Golan security arrangements. Syria says American mediators witnessed Israeli negotiators committing to withdrawal. And it expects the US to pressure Israel to start talks again from that point.

But Israel disputes the claim. One article of faith for Netanyahu's Likud government is no withdrawal from the Golan. So in Damascus, blame for encroaching pessimism easily finds a target.

"Do they want peace?" asks a Syrian analyst. "It was the Israelis who killed Rabin, defeated Peres, and put right-wingers into power. They really finished off the peace squad."

Now, "Netanyahu stands there and says, 'We will negotiate, but not on the Golan,' " he says. "It's a reversal."

Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa have just completed a whirlwind tour, asking Arab leaders to hold off establishing ties with Israel.

But Syria has been preparing its population for peace, and official newspapers no longer refer to Israel as the "Zionist enemy."

Still, recent requests to boost Israel's defense budget by $1 billion in case of war with Syria has raised anxiety in Damascus.

Syria's chief negotiator and ambassador to Washington, Walid al-Moualem, provides the most detailed account of the previous negotiations in the current issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He said Israel had, in fact, agreed to withdraw, and is now reneging on that commitment.

"The increased military budget, combined with their insistence on the basis of 'peace for peace' and their expanding settlement in the Golan, shows that their intention is not to make peace with Syria, but to make conflict with Syria," he said.

Western diplomats, however, say Israel gave only "conditional assurances" of a pullout. Since then, the Israeli "theme" has been "that none of this occurred."

But "both sides have contributed to the lack of progress," says one Western diplomat. "Syria is not guilty of the same periodic slowdowns as Israel, but of a very slow decision-making process."

"The Syrians tend to overplay the notion of 'commitment' to a full withdrawal," says the diplomat, who noted that the Syrian regime of President Hafez al-Assad has had to deal with four different Israeli governments.

The result for Syria has been near-resignation, says Ambassador Moualem: "If we accept the precedent of going back to Square 1 every time there is a change of government, we will never reach an agreement."

The mistrust is mutual. As Syria accuses Israel of going back on its promises, Israel notes that Assad still plays two very different hands at the negotiating table.

Syria ranks high on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism for providing a base for a handful of extremist groups who oppose Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the peace process.

Mr. Khaddam, Syria's vice president, reportedly told these groups in a tough secret meeting in December to keep a low profile.

But Israel also directly blames Syria for waging a proxy war against it in southern Lebanon, by aiding Hizbullah guerrillas. Assad has made clear that any Lebanon peace with Israel will be tied to a Golan package with Syria.

"Syria has played a double game for five years" to hedge its bets if the peace process fails, says one Arab analyst. "Soon they must choose."

Despite the saber rattling, recapture of the Golan is said to be a very personal aim of Assad, who was defense minister when it was captured in 1967.

Though the recent deal on Hebron struck between Palestinians and Israelis is seen as reason for optimism that Mideast peace is back on track, Syria views Mr. Arafat's concession of 20 percent of the town as a bad precedent.

Assad "doesn't want to be another Arab leader who capitulates to Israel," says a Western diplomat.

The current stalemate is dangerous, however, and increases the chance that any violence could poison careful calculations.

"If peace fails, all options are open," warns Moualem.

"In Syria, peace is still our strategic option.... But you cannot achieve peace by yourself - you need a partner for peace."

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