Israelis hope to soften Syria's stance

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The Independent Online
THE Middle East talks resumed in Washington yesterday with the focus once more on reaching a settlement between Israel and Syria, rather than on the Palestinian issue. Thus, the talks have come full circle. A few months ago, the talk was of Israel splitting Syria off from the other interested parties to reach a settlement. When the Washington talks started, the Palestinian issue was back at the forefront.

It has always been Israel's desire to make peace one by one with its Arab neighbours, while the Arab states have feared that lack of unity would allow them to be picked off. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Shara, emphasised in an official statement the long-standing view that 'Syria rejects any partial solution and stresses the necessity of Israel's full withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories'.

Taken at face value, this allows no room for negotiation and means that Syria will not go down the road Egypt took in 1979 and sign a separate peace with Israel, but will only reach an agreement with Israel as part of a comprehensive settlement which includes the other states with bilateral disputes with Israel - Jordan and Lebanon - and which includes the Palestinian issue.

Furthermore, there is no departure from Syria's rigid, maximalist interpretation of United Nations resolution 242 passed by the Security Council after the Arab-Israel war in 1967 and referring to Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied during the conflict.

However, Israeli officials have reported a marked change of atmosphere in discussions with the Syrians in Washington. They point to signs - such as permitting Israeli journalists to attend press briefings - of a greater willingness on the Syrian side to discuss a settlement. And it is widely believed that the Syrians are prepared to ditch their Arab friends and make a separate peace - if they can recover every square inch of the Golan Heights.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, who will always see a silver lining to the storm clouds overhead, said that the first session of talks with Syria were the warmest contacts the Israelis had ever had with them. But the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was slightly less effusive, saying he would only talk about territorial compromise over the Golan Heights within the context of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Mr Rabin said he wanted open borders and diplomatic relations with Syria, but his mistrust of Syria has not changed; he still doubts that Syria accepts Israel's legitimacy. But, as a man whose entire political outlook has been shaped by security considerations, he appreciates more than any that the strategic importance of the Golan Heights are diminishing rapidly in the missile age.

Withdrawing from the Golan, and handing it over either to Syria or to some UN supervisory force, would not be so politically controversial. It would not antagonise the religious lobby, for the Golan Heights - unlike what Israelis have called Judaea and Samaria, and what the rest of the world knows as the West Bank - is not part of the biblical Land of Israel. The law extending Israeli rule to the Golan Heights fell short of formal annexation.