Golan deal moves closer

BPeace talks between Israel and Syria gained an unexpected boost yesterday when the two sides reached a "framework understanding" on the contentious issue of security along their future common border.

The announcement was made by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who said he and his special co-ordinator on the Middle East, Dennis Ross, would go back to the region for a new round of negotiations. Israeli and Syrian military experts would meet to discuss details in Washington before the end of June, he added. Mr Christopher warned that there remained "significant gaps" between the two sides.

The Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomed the framework understanding as a procedural breakthrough but said true achievement was still to come: "I believe it's a continuation of the negotiations. It's a breakthrough in the procedure but not in the substance."

The question of security arrangements on either side of a new border has bedevilled negotiations over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six-Day war of 1967. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria had dispatched his Foreign Minister to see President Bill Clinton and Mr Christopher earlier this month, in an effort to regain the territory through negotiation.

But Mr Rabin, has been hemmed in by right-wing opponents, who accuse him of selling out Israeli interests, and Jewish settlers on the Golan. The opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Mr Rabin was ready to concede too much and could not guarantee Israel's security in the north.

This political tension has raised the question of how a demarcation line between Israel and Syria would be policed. Syria wants military deployments to be "equitable and equal" on both sides. Israel worries that this would mean an unacceptable "thinning out" of Israeli units deep into Galilee. Syria points out that Damascus itself lies close to the border.