If to everything there is a season, a time for peace between Israel and Syria may be at hand.
When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin echoed the famous words of Ecclesiastes on the White House lawn more than six years ago as he signed a peace deal with Palestinians, he also had in mind a comprehensive regional settlement that would include Israel's foes to the north.
But a breakthrough with Syria didn't happen with Mr. Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres; the Syrians considered Benjamin Netanyahu's offers to negotiate as nonstarters. Now, a new season is being ushered in by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and US President Clinton.
On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton announced that Israel and Syria would resume formal negotiations next week. Mr. Barak is to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in Washington, in what promises to be the highest level meeting to date of officials from the two countries, officially at war since Israel's founding in 1948.
"To move this up to the high political level ... is a major change in this area and a change that will echo around the Middle East in profoundly important ways, considering that Syria is the one critical country that Israel has not had those kind of discussions with before," says a senior American official.
Indeed, an Israeli-Syrian peace deal - one that officials here expect to come with much more celerity than the painfully protracted Israeli-Palestinian process - could effectively serve as the key puzzle piece to end more than a half century of Israeli-Arab hostilities. The subtext would include an Israeli withdrawal from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon and a probable peace agreement between the Jewish state and Beirut, simultaneously throwing open the doors to relations between Israel and most moderate Arab states throughout the region.
What paved the way for the breakthrough, the American officials said, was a shift in Syria's willingness to consider the Clinton administration's compromise formula for resuming talks. For several years, Syrian officials have said that they would agree only to recommence negotiations from the point at which they left off, a catch phrase for what they maintained was a pledge from Rabin to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israeli seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli officials say that they had not made any such promises at the time but only discussed proposals, a position backed by the Clinton administration. That, as well as Barak's announcement that he would withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon by July 2000, seems to have moved the Syrians to ease their conditions for returning to the negotiating table.
Meeting in the middle, Israel and Syria agreed to resume talks "from the point at which they left off," with each side reserving the right to maintain its own interpretation of what those words mean.
Unlike the ambiguities of the Oslo accords that have so often ensnarled Israeli and Palestinian officials, most here expect the talks to proceed with impressive speed. According to one estimate attributed to Mr. Sharaa, 70 percent of
the issues were already solved when the talks broke off in early 1996.
"This will be a very crucial meeting next week on principles, and once the principles are set, it won't take long," says Hebrew University Professor Moshe Maoz, one of Israel's foremost experts on the Israeli-Syrian conflict. "Most of the issues have already been understood and agreed upon - not on paper but orally - and there are some gaps. They have to bridge them, and that's it. It's not a matter of days, but it could be a matter of weeks."
American officials outlined four main issues for which Israeli and Syrian negotiators will have to work out the parameters next week. They are:
*Withdrawal: the extent of Israel's transfer of land to Syria, including a solution to the debate about where the international border will be.
*Timing of implementation: a schedule for Israel's withdrawal, probably a staged process that will almost certainly necessitate the evacuation of some or all of the 17,000 settlers on the Golan Heights.
*Content of peace: the nature of relations between Syria and Israel, including the extent to which the countries will engage in political, economic, or cultural exchanges.
*Security arrangements: the possibilities of stationing United Nations peacekeepers on the Golan Heights and stations giving early warning of a ground offensive, and reducing Syrian and/or Israeli troop presences near the border.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society