Leading Article: A deal with Syria would change the face of the whole Middle East

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The Independent Culture
MIDDLE EAST history may be in the making. When Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister, shakes the hand of Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister, in Washington today, they will be initiating the highest level talks ever between two previously implacable foes. The negotiations not only offer the hope that after 52 years the Jewish state will finally be at peace with all its neighbours. Success also cannot but alter the whole region's political dynamic, with repercussions that will be felt in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Certainly the incentives have never been greater for the parties to strike a deal. Its outlines are clear - so clear, indeed, that many are convinced that the very fact the two men are meeting signifies that agreement in principle has already been reached. Israel would hand back the Golan Heights, which it seized in the 1967 Six Day war, in exchange for cast-iron security guarantees, including, in all probability, American observers on the vacated territory. In return Syria would crack down on armed groups in its client state Lebanon, allowing Mr Barak to fulfil his electoral promise of withdrawing Israeli troops from occupied southern Lebanon by July.

Having regained the Heights, President Assad would be in a stronger position to engineer the succession in Damascus for his son Bashir. A settlement with its southern neighbour would bring Syria closer into the international fold, easing an isolation underscored last year when Turkey, partner in an unspoken alliance with Israel, humiliatingly forced Damascus to abandon the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan. For Israel, peace with Syria would automatically mean peace with Lebanon, removing the last outside threat to its existence. In Mr Barak's own words, "a new era with the whole Arab world could begin", of enormous political and economic benefit to all parties.

But in the Middle East, nothing can be counted certain. Any number of factors could yet derail an agreement. These include opposition from the 17,000 Golan settlers who have to leave their homes, the threat of a new terror offensive by Hamas, the Palestinian group opposed to the peace process, or the Lebanese Islamist movement Hizbollah, as well as a dispute over the exact line of the new border, which the Syrians want to set at the very shore of the Sea of Galilee, a vital source of Israeli drinking water. Finally, Mr Barak must sell the deal to his people, 74 per cent of whom, according to a poll this week, oppose full withdrawal from the Heights. To re-assure the doubters, Syria must make public gestures of compromise, sealed by a summit between the prime minister and the aloof President Assad in person, before any final agreement.

The odds, however, are that Mr Barak will succeed. He was elected last May in a landslide, as the candidate most likely to secure peace. And as Israel's most decorated soldier, he is also the incarnation of the security his countrymen crave. If he believes the deal is acceptable, at the end of the day he is likely to persuade them to follow him. Only one element is missing - the Palestinians. Peace with Syria would complete a geographical circle, but historically and morally, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is at the core of the Middle Eastern crisis. Even as he searches for a deal with Damascus, Mr Barak must not sideline the quest for a final settlement with the Palestinians.

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