Israel and Syria inch towards deal on Golan

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THE DIPLOMATIC subtext to the old saw about war and peace in the Middle East - no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria - is one the Israelis have learned well from previous encounters. It is that you cannot negotiate with the Syrians, but you can make a deal with them. You can negotiate with the Lebanese, but the deals do not stick.

The Israelis have years of experience to bear out this truth. The last agreement reached over the Golan Heights, the 1974 disengagement of forces agreement struck at the end of Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, has held. Every six months, the UN debates - and then extends - the mandate of observers and peace-keepers in the area between the Israeli and Syrian lines. In these 18 years, no violations of the agreement have been reported. The Syrians have not hesitated to sponsor Palestinian and other groups to attack Israel from Lebanon, and were behind the attempt to blow up an El Al plane out of Heathrow in 1986. But the agreement over the Golan Heights has not been violated.

The extremely positive assessment of talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations in Washington made by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, should be seen in this context. Mr Peres described the talks in fulsome terms. 'In the 44 years since the founding of Israel there have never been 10 days like these in Syrian-Israeli relations,' he said. 'We sat together, we listened to each other, I cannot say that these 10 days bought peace, but they bought a chance.'

Mr Peres, however, has a history of confusing wishful thinking with reality. Six years ago he was all for trumpeting the so-called London agreement reached with King Hussein of Jordan, when there was no real political will for any such agreement.

Now, as Foreign Minister, he is seeking to claim some credit for progress for the change in style and substance made by his arch-rival, the man who unseated him as Labour party leader and then dethroned Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr Peres' upbeat tone is considerably more positive than the far more cautious assessment of officials in Washington. The main progress reported by Israeli officials in the talks with the Syrians has been in Syrian acceptance of Israel's security concerns. This is after all the basis for UN Resolution 242 of 1967, which calls for Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war in exchange for acceptance within secure and recognised boundaries.

That said, the possibility of an agreement with Syria over the Golan Heights - which Israel seized in the 1967 war, and has held on to since - is greater than ever. There are several reasons for this.

On the Israeli side, it had long been accepted wisdom that while the Western world focused its attention on a solution of the Palestinian question, and on some end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, for Israeli strategists the main issue was the Arab world. The Arab states had powerful armies and air forces. The Palestinians did not. Only a few liberal thinkers wrung their hands at the damage to Israel's soul caused by the burden of being an occupying power. For the retired generals, Mr Rabin among them, the gravest threat to Israel's survival came from the powerful tanks and aircraft of the neighbouring states.

That has changed. Now, Mr Rabin sees the main need is to reach agreement on the Palestinian issue. This is not over any well-meaning desire to give Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip the same rights as Israelis. Mr Rabin loathes the Arabs. He wants a largely Jewish state in Israel. But even as Mr Shamir's defence minister he said there was no military solution to the Palestinian intifada, only a political one. And he wants to be rid of as much responsibility as possible for the territories currently occupied by Israeli forces. Furthermore, the Scud attacks by Iraq on Israel during the Gulf war only reinforced what many have said for some time: that in the missile age, fixed borders are largely meaningless.

Israeli officials are under no illusions about Syria. They know the country does not accept Israel's legitimacy but reason that Syria can no longer afford to continue the current situation. The Soviet Union, Syria's main backer, no longer exists. The Arab world has been weakened by the Gulf war. Syria's economy is in desperate straits and cannot afford another war. Perhaps it feels an agreement with Israel may bring a peace dividend from the US, as the Egyptians had before.