THE WORLD : MIDDLE EAST : Why the Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks Can't Get Beyond the Talking Stage

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the USA-Israel Alliance" (Hyperion)

Eli Sigron watches the skiers with great satisfaction as they descend Mt. Hermon's modest slopes. For the manager of Israel's only ski resort, the 200,000 Israelis who have come this season to the northwestern edge of the occupied Golan Heights mean not only income. "I see their visits," he says, "also as political support for our cause."

Sigron's cause is to prevent any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even in return for a peace treaty with Syria. A few months ago, Sigron and his colleagues, representing about 12,000 Jewish settlers who live in 30 rural and urban communities in the area, formed a bloc to sabotage the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The settlers say they have been accumulating cement and other construction materials that they would not hesitate to use to barricade themselves should the government ask them to leave.

Judging from the slow pace of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks, the Golan Heights protestors won't have to lay any concrete. Even Yossi Beilin, deputy foreign minister, eternal optimist and staunch supporter of the negotiations, is doubtful. "I wonder," he said, "if Syria is truly interested to embark on the road to peace." His skepticism reflects a growing frustration in Yitzhak Rabin's left-of-center government. As for Syria, its disillusionment with the talks is best expressed in its tacit green light to new Hezbollah attacks against Israeli and Israeli-backed Lebanese troops.

Since the June, 1992, elections, Prime Minister Rabin has made the Israeli-Arab peace talks a top issue. And in the last 20 months, his government has scored several achievements: a peace treaty with Jordan; accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, though they have been marred by terrorism, and significant diplomatic and economic inroads into North Africa and the Gulf Emirates.

But "we have not moved one inch forward in our encounters with Syria," laments a senior Israeli official involved in the peace talks. Rabin and his Cabinet ministers, who have watched their popularity plunge in opinion polls, fear that without a peace breakthrough on the Syrian front, their prospects of remaining in power after the next general elections, set for November, 1996, are doomed.

The last round of negotiations between the Israeli and Syrian delegations took place in Washington, in September, 1993. Encounters between the two sides' ambassadors have occurred since then, but with no results.

The talks have not been without some encouraging signs. Under heavy pressure from the Clinton Administration, Syria agreed to try to break the "psychology of hostility" between the two countries and defuse suspicions among Israelis about Syrian intentions by allowing its foreign minister, Farouk Shareh, to give an interview for Israeli state-run television. As recently as two years ago, such an interview--the first of its kind--would have been unthinkable. The Israeli public was unmoved by Shareh's words, which, unfortunately, were delivered in a rigid and contentious manner.

The second ray of hope came last December. Once again under strong pressure from the Administration, Syria agreed to send its chief of staff to meet with his Israeli counterpart in Washington. But aside from its symbolism--creating an impression that the two sides were talking business--the military conference was a failure. Gens. Hikmat Shihab and Ehud Barak could not close the wide gap in their perceptions of the security parameters of a future peace agreement.

Today, the two sides are digging trenches with their heels. In fact, Jerusalem and Damascus find themselves in a "Catch 22" situation.

Both sides have already agreed to a future treaty that contains three elements: an Israeli withdrawal from the 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights that Israel captured during the Six Day War; security arrangements that include the demilitarization of the Golan and the deployment of an international force as a buffer between the two countries, and normalization of relations between Israel and Syria.

Syrian President Hafez Assad has promised--most recently when he met with President Bill Clinton in Damascus last year--to "have normal relations" with Israel once a peace treaty is signed but has refused to list the ingredients of the normalization before Israel commits to a full withdrawal. Rabin, on the other hand, demands that Assad first list the ingredients: open borders; free movement of people, vehicles and goods; full diplomatic relations; aviation links; cultural exchange, and "all the other aspects of a true peace between two good neighbors." The Israeli leader rejects any Syrian or international demand for a full Israeli withdrawal to the old border between the two countries.

For some time, Rabin has been talking about a formula of "the deeper the peace will be, the further the withdrawal will extend." But he has never hinted, neither in public nor in private, that he would lead a complete evacuation of the Golan, which would entail dismantling Jewish villages and townships and resettling Sigron and his colleagues. Even if there arises a readiness to make such a move, Rabin's aides explain, the prime minister is unsure whether it would be approved by the Israeli public in a referendum to be held once a treaty is finalized.

Despite the difficulties, American, Israeli and, to a certain degree, some Syrian negotiators have not given up. "After all," says an Israeli Cabinet minister, "the real difference between the two sides is not that big. If one reads carefully between the lines of what the two governments have been saying, one can reach the conclusion that they are separated only by a thin strip of four to five kilometers. In return for satisfying security measures and real normalization, Israel will be ready to evacuate, in stages within three years, nearly 90% of the territory and return it to Syrian sovereignty. With some inventive ideas, the rest can be dealt with as well."

Israel, adds the minister, is now looking for a new initiative from the Clinton Administration, possibly when Secretary of State Warren Christopher visits the Middle East next month. If he fails, however, it is clear to all parties that, as in the 1950s, when both sides missed some good peace opportunities, peace may evade them once again.*

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