Israel goes slow on Golan peace talks

As the Israeli and Syrian chiefs of staff prepare to resume talks about security arrangements in the event of an Israeli with drawal from the Golan Heights, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, spelt out yesterday how far Israel is from a peace treaty with Syria.

He said there was no agreement on the four main elements of a treaty: the position of a new border in the Golan which Israel captured in 1967, a timetable for withdrawal, normalisation of relations and security arrangements. He added he did not "want peace at any price" and said "both sides want to be sure there is no possibility of a surprise attack after the peace treaty".

Under pressure from Washington, Syria has agreed to a modification in its position over the distance each army should pull back on either side of a new border. In the past it has insisted that any future demilitarised zones be of equal depth. In answer to the Israeli argument that it is smaller geographically and could not pull back as far as its larger neighbour, Syrian officials said that Israel is much superior in conventional and nuclear weapons.

The US persuaded Syria to accept that the facts of geography have to be taken into account. It also threatened that if Damascus did not agree to the US proposal then Washington would freeze its involvement in the negotiations. Possibly acting to ensure that it was not saddled with the blame by the US for sabotaging the resumption of talks, Syria agreed that its demilitarised zone might be larger than the Israelis'.

The two sides are closer together than they look, though neither wants to look as if it is in a hurry. Last year Syria suspended the talks between the chiefs of staff in Washington because it said Israeli demands were excessive. But - although the exact line of the border is in dispute - Israel has effectively agreed to give back the Golan, a deal Syria will not obtain if Israeli Labour and the US Democrats lose the 1996 elections.

Mr Rabin wants a token military pullback by Israeli forces on the Golan, followed by a staged withdrawal over three years geared to progress in the normalisation in relations, including the exchange of embassies. He needs this to sell a peace treaty to a dubious Israeli public. Otherwise he is vulnerable to the jibe from the opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu that Israel is now reduced to trying to defend its fishing rights in the Sea of Galilee.

There is more to a treaty than the Golan. The US is eager to split Syria away from Iran, with which it has been allied since the Iranian revolution. It also wants to end support from Iran - courtesy of Syria - for Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

President Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who is due in the region next month, are eager for a dipomatic success and have little time to focus on the Middle East before the presidential campaign gets under way. A further problem for Mr Rabin is lack of public support in Israel for a Golan withdrawal.