Slow going on the Syria-Israel peace track

Recent diplomacy, including a Jordan-Syria meeting Sunday, may spell

Just a few months ago, when Israelis elected a peace-talking prime minister, the Syria-Israel rift appeared to be coming together. Though still technically at war with each other, both sides engaged in unusually warm rhetoric and mutual praise. Hopes were high for a resumption of talks.

But in the face of increasing misperceptions and mixed signals, the Syrians - and their public optimism - have gone "right back to the trenches," says a Western diplomat.

For its part, Israel is literally digging in: Last month it began construction of 700 new housing units in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. And two weeks ago Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak approved a series of financial incentives for new Jewish settlers in the occupied territory.

Mr. Barak, nevertheless, recently asked Syria's President Hafez al-Assad to "walk through the door of opportunity" with him "for the sake of the children ... for a peace of courage and dignity." Syria's official Tishreen newspaper on Saturday dismissed that call as "hollow."

It's all added up to confusion. "[The Syrians] are more bewildered than anything else. They are asking if Barak is seriously committed to peace," says a Western envoy in Damascus. "They think they have gone too far too fast and feel that it was interpreted as weakness by the Israelis. If I were an Israeli, I would not think that this [peace] was a fait accompli."

Still, both sides have incentives to move forward. Barak has vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by next July - a move that, to go smoothly, would require making a land-for-peace deal with Syria by handing back the Golan Heights. And Syria's aging president wants an agreement that will conclude "unfinished business" and help pave the way for the succession of his son.

Recent diplomacy may be a sign of progress. Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa met twice with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright earlier this month. On Sunday, Jordan's foreign minister was in Damascus for talks with Mr. Assad.

But reputable assessments run the gamut. One observer with close Syria and Lebanon ties predicts there will be an "announcement" on the resumption of talks within a month; other sources who made high-level contact with Israeli officials say that the Syria track, as far as Israel is concerned, is "dead as a doornail."

At any rate, Syria and Israel are both trying to set preconditions for talks. For a generation, Syria has demanded that Israel totally withdraw from the Golan to the border that existed on June 4, 1967, based on United Nations Security Council resolutions requiring such a pullback.

"The Syrians are being totally consistent - that's a polite way to say 'rigid,' " says a senior Western diplomat in Damascus. Return of the Golan is a "given." If not, "there is no point in talking," adds another diplomat.

But the pretalk maneuvering has created diversions. Syria claims that, in talks that were broken off in 1996, Israel had committed itself to withdraw entirely from the Golan. It wants new talks to start from that point.

Israel counters that no such undertaking was made, and that the option was presented only as a "hypothetical" example to be considered alongside a series of security guarantees such as Israeli stations that could give early warning of a ground offensive.

Israel also says that it now wants the final border to be based on the 1923 Britain-France boundary that leaves in Israeli hands a strip of shore along the Sea of Galilee - one of Israel's primary sources of fresh water. The 1967 line gave Syria access to the northeast shore.

"Whether Syrian feet are in the water or not is irrelevant," says the senior Western diplomat. "The important thing for Israel is what water regime is agreed on in the Golan so that Israel gets a share. The 1949 [armistice demarcation] or 1967 lines don't matter, either - what matters is the quality of the security arrangements."

Syrian officials question the need for early-warning stations in the Golan - a sticking point in past talks - and note that Israeli and American spy satellites regularly photograph the territory. "It's a case of sovereignty," says one, who asked not to be named. "Does the US need early-warning stations in Kosovo or Korea? The Israeli satellites take pictures of Syria every half an hour. No army can prepare itself for an invasion in half an hour."

Though Syria has a formidable ballistic-missile capability and one of the most sophisticated chemical-weapon arsenals in the Mideast, its ground forces have disintegrated in the years since Soviet patronage dried up. Israeli military strategists rule out any Syrian ground offensive.

The Syrians have not hidden their wish that the United States engage fully in the process.

When Dr. Albright first visited Damascus in 1997, she brought a gift of a crystal lion, in honor of Assad's name, which means "lion."

"The Americans ...should be more active because it may be the last chance," says political scientist Murhaf Jouejati in Damascus. "The dignity factor weighs heavily. [Assad] would rather be the man who didn't make peace with Israel, than the man who brought back half of the Golan."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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