Syria and Israel dust off abandoned peace track

Israeli election of Ehud Barak appears to rejuvenate negotiations on

In the labyrinthine world of Mideast peacemaking, windows of opportunity are rare. But one of these windows appears to be opening on the critical Syria-Israel peace track.

After three years of neglect on this front, as Israeli-Palestinian talks roller-coasted and eventually stalled, there seems to be a new confluence of mutual interests in a Syria-Israel peace that includes Lebanon, with the United States resuming its role as "honest broker."

The catalyst has been the election defeat on May 17 of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had ruled out any return to Syria of the Golan Heights - Syria's chief demand - which Israel occupied in 1967.

Israel's new left-leaning leader Ehud Barak - a former army chief of staff - has promised to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon and has indicated that any deal there must include Syria - the main power broker in Lebanon.

Much will depend on the political makeup of Mr. Barak's coalition government, to be formed by July. Still, Syria especially, under President Hafez al-Assad, is anxious to end one of the thorniest disputes in the Mideast, analysts say.

"You can use the word 'eager,' but don't think that Syria will take just any peace," says Murhaf Jouejati, an American-educated political analyst in Damascus. "They are very serious about the Golan, and about getting back all the Golan. This is uppermost in Mr. Assad's strategic calculi. It is the principle: Syria is very genuine about making peace, but it is not willing to give Israel a right where it has none."

International law rejects the acquisition of land by force, and United Nations Security Council resolutions have required Israel to withdraw from the Golan for the past 32 years.

Contrary to the widespread belief in Israel that Syria had used the strategic plateau to shell Israel, the commander who seized the Golan, Moshe Dayan, reportedly said later that the primary motive was to take the rich farmland and water for local Jewish farmers. Of the 78 shooting incidents that did occur on the Golan border from May 1955 to the outbreak of the 1967 war, UN military observers are reported to have found that Israel was at fault in 74.

In June 1967 the Israeli cabinet voted to return the Golan, but instead it was held and illegally annexed in 1981. Talks on the matter made headway until February 1996, when Israel then cut them off for domestic reasons. Mr. Netanyahu encouraged more building, and now some 17,000 Jewish settlers populate more than 35 settlements there.

Soon after Barak's Labor Party victory, European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos traveled to Damascus and emerged saying that Syria felt that "Labor can achieve the final peace with Syria."

On the American side, analysts believe that high-level attention from Washington is required. A "critical element here is a serious and sustained commitment in word and deed" by the president and secretary of State, noted one assessment by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

"Syria has absorbed the message given to them by the Americans, that after the Israeli elections, if Barak won, there would be a short window of opportunity in which the US could exercise influence, before the US election [campaign begins]," says a Western diplomat. "So Syria said: 'We are ready and willing.' "

Newspapers in Damascus made big news last week of a call to Assad from President Clinton. The government-owned Al-Thawra said that "during the telephone conversation ... President Clinton expressed his personal interest in reviving the peace process after the formation of a new Israeli cabinet. Syria welcomes the American position ...."

The Israeli side of the equation has as much to do with domestic politics as with pursuing peace.

Most Israelis say they are fed up with the high casualty rate of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. Senior officials make clear, however, that no Lebanon deal will be done without making peace with Syria. "It's a big mistake to believe that Israel can hold on to the Golan," Uri Lubrani, in charge of Israel's Lebanon policy, told Tel Aviv's Maariv newspaper on Friday.

As a military man, Barak is expected to pursue a more Spartan peace than one of his predecessors, Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "The Syrians know [Barak], and that what he is interested in is security, not a Peres-style hearts-and-flowers peace, with love in every heart," says another Western diplomat. "If the peace is the land back for security, they can do it."

Action on the Syria track is not likely to prevent expected moves forward on the Palestinian track, adds one Western analyst: "There is an assumption we can have an Israeli government that can walk and chew gum at the same time, so it can do two tracks at once."

Domestic issues also dominate Syria's agenda. Assad, who has had health problems, is focusing on the issue of his succession. He is grooming his son Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, for the top slot.

But Assad seems eager to resolve the Golan on his watch. He was defense minister when the Golan was lost, and therefore considers a solution personal business, many say.

"[Assad] doesn't want to leave the legacy of defeat and occupation to his son. He wants it to be smooth, and so he is more in a hurry to take care of it," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at the University of Damascus. "He's not stubborn for the sake of it, but he stands hard on principle and is a Class-A strategist. Nobody else can compromise as much as he can, and nobody else can sell the compromise to the Syrian people."

Still, says a Western diplomat: "The Syrians are under no illusions. Barak will be a tough negotiating partner. But the Syrians are tough negotiators. They are ready to engage."

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