Israel searches for Golan lines of peace: Amid talk of settlement, Sarah Helm visits the disputed territory to assess how much ground Yitzhak Rabin might yield to Syria

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FROM AN overgrown Syrian observation bunker, about 500 metres (550 yards) above the Sea of Galilee, the old international boundary between Israel and Syria is easy to trace below. Originally the boundary between Palestine and Syria, drawn by the French and the British mandate powers in 1923, it mostly follows the road which runs about 10 metres from the sea-shore.

From the top of the Golan's steep west-facing escarpment, Syrian troops were, until 1967, able to fire down into Israeli settlements and look out over the Galilee and the Jordan Valley. The Syrian company which manned this post probably perished in the Six-Day War when Israel forces clambered up the escarpment, pushed on over the plateau to the far side of the Heights, stopping at a line of volcanic hills from where they, in turn, could now look out across Syria.

This line of hills, which nowadays bristle with electronics, became the Israeli ceasefire line, and later, with some adjustment, a negotiated disengagement line. Following renewed hostilities on the Golan during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a disengagement agreement introduced a UN-monitored buffer zone.

There the enemies have stayed, and peace - though fragile - has been kept on the spectacular moorland slopes of the Golan ever since. Now both Israel and Syria are signalling they may be ready for real peace, fuelling talk of diplomatic miracles, including even an Israeli-Syrian summit. This was one of the options discussed yesterday when the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, visited Jerusalem for talks. As the military strategists know, the means to such miracles will be long and slow; the compromises demanded of both sides immense. But public opinion in Israel - not least among the generals and the strategists - is ready to give it a try.

The biggest compromise is demanded, inevitably, of the occupying power. As a precondition of any agreement, Syria insists that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights - and retreat back down the escarpment to the boundary line below. Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, has already conceded that he will give up some ground. The key question is: how far will he go?

The strategists believe that if Israel is to give up its positions on the volcanic hills, there is only one other line worth holding on the heights: the escarpment top facing west. Mr Rabin said during the election campaign he would not 'go down' from the Golan - a pledge which settlers bitterly argue he is now betraying. However, he may have meant all along that he would retreat - but would not go down the final edge.

Although Israel would lose some intelligence advantage if it gave up its eastern look-out points, many experts believe militarily there is little to be gained from holding the land behind the escarpment. Under any agreement Israel will insist that water sources flowing off the Golan into the Sea of Galilee must be protected. But the plateau itself can be sacrificed because only a few metres back from the top of the western ridge, the enemy has no view into Israel. The sparse Golan settlements can be sacrificed.

'Israel must be ready to give up things which are very important to Syria but it cannot give back all the land. Syria is not Egypt and the Golan is not Sinai,' says General Moshe Bar-Kochba, a former commander in the Golan, referring to the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, under which Israel handed back all the Sinai Desert in exchange for peace.

However, such a compromise assumes flexibility on Syria's part: and there is none so far. Syria's insistence on total withdrawal also appears to rule out interim agreements, such as the autonomy deal being discussed with the Palestinians. General Aryeh Shalev, formerly a West Bank commander, who is writing a book on Golan peace, believes interim agreements are unworkable because Syria insists that Israel concede total sovereignty before the talking starts. He says peace will have to be achieved through the phased implementation of a comprehensive agreement under which Israel would first have to accept that, in the long term, it is going to retreat 'from the majority if not the totality' of the territory.

Gen Shalev believes Israel's ultimate commitment should be to withdraw only to the escarpment edge. But he concedes this may not be possible.

The comprehensive agreement could take two years to negotiate, he says, and only then could the phased implementation start, taking 'many years'. During the phases the two sides would progress towards making peace, guaranteeing each other's security and, on Israel's part, returning land.

Those strategists who believe Israel can quit the Golan entirely put forward numerous far-reaching proposals for enforcing guarantees, all involving retaining the Golan as a demilitarised or internationally policed area.

It is not surprising that the dominant view in Israel's military is that peace should and could be made with Syria. The military often appear to take a more liberal view on security issues than the country's political ideologues, citing lessons learnt on the Golan as well as other war fronts. 'We learnt in the Six-Day War that in war we can lose a lot and not gain anything. If we succeed in a war we cannot force a political solution on the other side because the international community would not back us,' Gen Shalev says.

In war the generals have also learnt, however, that they can rely on nobody else - no US or UN force - to help when it comes to the crunch. When deciding how far to 'come down' from the Golan, Mr Rabin, who was army commander-in-chief during the Six-Day War, will have to balance these factors.

TEL AVIV - The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, says Israel will accept participation of Palestinians from outside the occupied territories in regional Middle East peace talks, AP reports. After meetings with Egypt's Foreign Minister, Mr Peres said those taking part could not belong to the PLO's parliament-in-exile or come from Arab east Jerusalem.

Israel previously objected to attendance at the multilateral sessions by outside Palestinians, fearing this could revive demands by those exiled with the founding of Israel in 1948 to return to their former homes.

(Photograph omitted)