Finding the End of the String

Renewal of Israel-Syria Talks Faces Early Hurdle

From all accounts, both Syrian President Hafez el-Assad and new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are eager to renew peace talks over the Golan Heights. Yet despite the mutual political will to proceed, the lack of agreement as to where those talks broke off over three years ago looms as an imposing barrier.

Past negotiations bogged down as Syria demanded that Israel first agree to a full withdrawal, while Israel sought security arrangements and normalization of relations. Syria claims the late Yitzhak Rabin committed to a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 border, placing the Syrians on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Like Binyamin Netanyahu before him, Barak rejects this inflexible Syrian version of events, although he has declared a readiness to pay a "painful" price for a peace treaty with Damascus.

During the recent campaign, Barak reaffirmed the formulation of Rabin - "the depth of withdrawal will equal the depth of peace." His team also speaks in terms of a "window of opportunity" once touted by his mentor. But Barak appears even more ambitious than Rabin in wanting to pursue both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks at the same time. This is confirmed by Rabin's ambassador to the US and chief negotiator with Syria, Itamar Rabinovich, who has recounted of late just how close the slain Israeli premier came to striking a deal with Assad.

According to Rabinovich, when Rabin assumed office in 1992, the Bush Administration and then US President Bill Clinton advised him the best prospects for a deal lay with Assad, rather than PLO leader Yasser Arafat. In August 1993, Rabin authorized US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to present a hypothetical question to Assad: If Israel met his territorial demands, would Assad be willing to meet Israeli demands for a peace treaty and security arrangement based loosely on the Egyptian model? Assad responded with a heavily qualified yes, accepting the plan in principle but insisting on changes to every Israeli demand. Rabin was skeptical and chose instead to go with the Palestinian track and Oslo.

Rabin's hypothetical package assumed "full withdrawal" would be to the international border, a few meters east of the Kinneret, while Assad has consistently defined it to mean a return to the borders of June 4, 1967. Although Rabin never made a commitment directly to the Syrians, he did so with the US. After Rabin informed the Americans of the Oslo accords, the US simply asked him to reaffirm the hypothetical proposal. Rabin assured the pledge was intact, and over time the hypothetical "deposit" became, in US eyes, a full commitment. After Rabin's assassination, Clinton asked new Prime Minister Shimon Peres if he adhered to Rabin's commitment. Rabinovich maintains that Peres said yes. This sensitive information remained a closely guarded secret, but any new opportunity soon was overtaken by Hamas bus bombings, Operation Grapes of Wrath and the election of Netanyahu.

On the surface, the Syrian track appeared frozen during Netanyahu's tenure. But two weeks after losing to Barak, Netanyahu admitted in a cabinet communiqué to conducting "unofficial" contacts with Syria over the past year. He assured that no territorial concessions were made, but added "the actual negotiations constitute an accomplishment since they represent a retreat from the Syrian position that negotiations will not be conducted until Israel first agrees to a comprehensive withdrawal from the Golan Heights." The communiqué added the US did not expect the Netanyahu government to adhere to secret agreements between the late Rabin and Assad.

More recently, Netanyahu revealed he even reached an "understanding" with Syria, through envoy Ron Lauder, for a long-term Israeli presence at a Mt. Hermon early-warning station under a peace accord. Although a Barak aide confirmed the Netanyahu assertions, Syria - as to be expected - adamantly denies any such understanding on an Israeli-manned Hermon outpost. "That is far from being true," said a Syrian official, accusing the former Likud leader of "misleading public opinion and placing obstacles before the peace process."

The Syrians also bristle at suggestions Assad misplayed his big chance to regain the Golan by refusing Rabin's offer. Assad's hesitation has seemed puzzling to many observers, but the probable explanation lies in Syria's competing foreign policy goals and his own internal struggles. Assad was caught between choosing peace with Israel or total control over Lebanon. He also knew the only way to break out of his diplomatic and economic isolation is via Jerusalem, but this carried high risks at home for his minority regime. Assad is naturally cautious, to the point of indecision, and vacillated over the Rabin offer until it was too late.

But Assad is loudly reaffirming his previous "strategic decision for peace." For the moment, he has clamped down on PLO rejectionists in Damascus and Hizb'Allah in Lebanon, and continues the unprecedented flirtation with Barak. Analysts even see Assad using a new arms deal with Russia as a selling point for peace with his own people.

Barak associates contend the new "window of opportunity" has opened because the aging Assad perceives that rare commodity - a second chance - has presented itself. And the long-time Syrian strongman feels he alone must shoulder the heavy domestic risks of making peace with Israel before handing over control to his son Bashar.

According to The Jerusalem Report, Assad recently informed Barak through an intermediary that he is prepared to resume peace talks based on a US interpretation of where they were broken off in March 1996. Israeli officials were said to be expecting to review soon an American assessment of where the end of the string is located, allowing talks to proceed. A senior Israeli source with the Barak entourage in Washington said the Syrian track likely will be resumed "within a couple weeks," adding: "We're reaching a moment of truth." But that moment may still prove elusive.

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