Israel rethinks need for peace

Yesterday, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to speed up talks. but on the Syrian front, negotiations have stalled.

In one respect, Israelis have never had it so good: 1999 was the first year in the Jewish state's 51-year history that not a single civilian died in a terrorist attack.

The once-pervasive sense that Israel faces an imminent, critical threat - and therefore must urgently make peace with Arab foes, especially Syria - is changing, analysts say.

"More people are deciding that we can do without peace," says Alon Liel, a political analyst at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The reason is that there has been no terrorism ... and the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the threat it once was.

"There is an Israeli indifference building up," Mr. Liel says. "Until the end of the 1970s, there was a real sense of anxiety for the existence of the state, but since the 1980s, that has vanished. The anxiety for the 1990s was personal security, but today people feel safe."

Israeli and Palestinian security forces have efficiently prevented some terrorist attacks, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak's commitment to peace may have also helped curb extremists. While further afield, Syria's once looming military threat is dismissed these days as obsolete.

The Palestinian peace track, which has been agonizingly slow, gained some momentum yesterday with a summit of Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders in Egypt. After months of deadlock, they affirmed a September deadline for a final deal.

But on the Syria track, a reevaluation is under way. Led by right-wing opponents of Mr. Barak - whose early optimism of a deal with Syria has devolved into frustration - new questions are gaining ground about the wisdom of exchanging the occupied Golan Heights for peace.

Two changes are key: With a struggling economy and deprived of Soviet military support for a decade, but still with a significant arsenal of missiles, the Syrian military grows weaker daily, compared to Israel's high-tech forces and nuclear deterrent.

The other lever that Syria uses to pressure Israel to return the Golan - support for Islamic guerrillas in southern Lebanon, who have caused heavy casualties among Israeli troops - is also disappearing. The Israeli Cabinet voted unanimously this week to withdraw from Lebanon by July, with or without a Syria accord.

"The selling point of a deal is to reduce the danger of war, but if Syria is not a viable military threat, it reduces the incentive to hand back the Golan," says Mark Heller, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "If there is no Lebanon incentive and no Syria threat, a lot of people will ask: 'Why should we do a peace? What is in it for us?' "

That question has already been asked in the Israeli Knesset, where a majority, including many from Barak's coalition approved the first reading of a bill that would require 60 percent approval of the entire Israeli electorate - an unlikely feat - on handing back the Golan.

"We can't accept a peace agreement that will harm our security," says Silvan Shalom, sponsor of the bill. "Giving up the Golan is not like voting for a prime minister, who can be changed the next time around. This is an irreversible step."

The broader issue of a land-for-peace deal has been known and widely accepted for years. Even the previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu was revealed last December to have accepted handing back the Golan and dismantling scores of Jewish settlements on the fertile plateau.

The huge unpopularity of the 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, made Barak promise a withdrawal during the election last year, despite risks seen by the military.

Syrian and Israeli officials met in the US for talks last December, resuming where they had broken off in 1996. Another round in January was suspended indefinitely, with Syria unhappy that Israel would not agree first to return all occupied territory.

Efhraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, says that Syria's ability to hold Israel "hostage" in Lebanon should be taken away. "The nuisance value of Syria still exists [in Lebanon], but there is growing frustration."

"The majority of Israelis think that the status quo with Syria, without an agreement, is better," he says. "As long as [President Assad] does not smile to Israel even a little bit, Israelis are skeptical.... The 'no war, no peace' situation has its advantages."

Some Arab and Western analysts outside Israel suggest that Syria would do anything - including provoking military confrontation with Israel - to keep Lebanon linked to a Golan deal.

Recognizing that this trump card may be in jeopardy, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa warned that Israel would "bear the consequences of a unilateral withdrawal."

Publication of a Jaffee Center assessment in The Middle East Military Balance 1999-2000 portrayed the Syrian Army as weak, and concluded that such weakness created a "window of opportunity" for Israel to make peace on the best possible terms.

But the Army immediately countered that the Syrian military still presented a grave threat - because critics began to suggest that if Syria was so weak, why give back the Golan at all? "Barak says we must make a deal or there will be war in the future," says Mr. Rubin, of the Besa Center. "But the right argues: 'Why make concessions if we are going to war?' "

"Everyone talks about the threat from Iran and Iraq, but Iran doesn't even have missiles that can hit Israel.... Iraq is weak, but people practice with gas masks and do drills anyway," says Reuven Pedatzur, a defense expert at Tel Aviv University.

Still, recent rhetoric in official Syrian newspapers comparing Israelis to Nazis, and denying the holocaust, have had a deep negative impact on Israelis.

"It's going to be painful to give up the Golan, but the Syrians are not doing anything to make it better," says Gerald Steinberg, of Besa Center. Mr. Sharaa's body language - refusing to shake Barak's hand, even in private meetings during the US talks - was "devastating."

"Every Arab leader we make peace with felt the need to engage in public diplomacy," says Joseph Alpher, a strategic analyst. "Egypt's Sadat visited Jerusalem, Jordan's King Hussein and even [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat did that. But Assad sees avoiding any of these gestures as a tactic."

"If Syria wants to get back something from Israel, there are two ways," adds Mr. Heller. "They must intimidate or seduce us, and right now the Syrians are not doing much of either."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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