Israel tries to soften up Syria on eve of talks

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The Independent Online
ON THE EVE of the US-Syrian summit in Geneva, an Israeli minister yesterday made an unprecedented peace overture to Damascus, saying Israel should surrender sovereignty of the entire Golan Heights.

Syria has always demanded total Israeli withdrawal from the Heights, occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Israel's offer of a partial withdrawal has been the main stumbling block to the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Yossi Sarid, a left-winger who has been given a prominent role in negotiations with the Palestinians, said Israel was seeking full peace with Syria and would have to make concessions in return.

'Israel for its part, I believe, will have to give up its sovereignty over the Golan Heights,' Mr Sarid told Israel Army Radio. He said that making peace with Syria could involve 'perhaps the most important and difficult decisions of any government since the establishment of the state'.

President Clinton and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria meet in Geneva today. Leaders of the 15,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan Heights have sent a delegation to the summit and plan mass protests across Israel.

On Friday, Yossi Beilin, Israel's doveish deputy foreign minister, described Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights as 'a mistake' and suggested that in the future it would not be 'fun' to live under Syrian sovereignty.

Until now the Israeli government has been vague about how far it is prepared to pull back from the territory. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, has insisted that Israel must maintain a strip of the Golan for security reasons. Mr Rabin talks enigmatically of withdrawal 'on the Golan'. Israel has said that the extent of the withdrawal would match the extent of the peace offered by Syria.

With negotiations flagging, Israel has renewed its efforts to speed up progress in talks with Syria. Mr Sarid's remarks yesterday signal a growing determination by Israel to demonstrate seriousness about peace and encourage Mr Assad to show seriousness in return. Mr Sarid, an early advocate of Israel-PLO relations, has been used as a stalking horse by Mr Rabin before.

What the Israeli government hopes to see from Mr Assad during the Geneva summit are conciliatory gestures that would help to change his image in the eyes of the Israeli public. For Mr Rabin to sell withdrawal from the Golan to his voters, he must first be able to convince them that President Assad is a new man, who wants real peace, with open borders and full diplomatic ties.