'Last chance' for peace in Middle East

Talks starting today could end the Golan deadlock between Israel and Syria, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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The Independent Online
In a final effort to achieve a breakthrough in talks between Israel and Syria, Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, is to meet the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in Cairo today .

On the eve of the meeting, President Bill Clinton called Mr Rabin to say: "I have never heard Syrian President [Hafez] Assad so optimistic concerning chances of the agreement with Israel as I heard him this week in a phone conversation."

The optimism has been sparked by Syria's decision last month to resume talks broken off six months ago. The Israeli and Syrian army chiefs- of-staff will meet in Washington at the end of the month to discuss security arrangements on the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal, according to sources in Jerusalem.

As he arrived in Israel yesterday Mr Christopher said he was encouraged by contacts in Damascus between US and Syrian officials. Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, declared: "This may be a last chance for a complete peace in the Middle East."

Both he and Mr Rabin have increasingly stressed in recent weeks that peace with Syria is inconceivable without giving up the Golan Heights. But withdrawal from the Golan is facing strong opposition from settlers there, the opposition Likud party and Labour hawks in the Knesset.

Mr Rabin rounded angrily on members of his own party for not disciplining three Labour MPs who support a law which would require more than a simple majority in the Knesset to give up the Golan. He reportedly shouted: "You are placing a question mark on the peace process. You are giving the Likud a veto right."

The purpose of today's summit is to give Egypt a central role in the peace talks, both with Syria and the Palestinians, and to end a period of strained relations when Egypt objected to renewing the Nuclear Non- Proliferation treaty on the grounds that Israel has nuclear weapons.

Despite the surge in hopes of a breakthrough between Israel and Syria the two sides have still to agree on many issues. The US peace team led by Dennis Ross, who has just arrived in Israel from Damascus, said Syrian officials touched on differences over the extent of the demilitarised zones on either side of a new border, a telephone hotline between the two armies and early warning stations in the Golan and in Galilee.

The US, apparently convinced that Syria will not allow any Israeli troops to remain on the Golan after a treaty, is offering to staff the early warning stations.

Talks at chief-of-staff level in Washington broke down last December when Syria objected strongly to the Israeli demand for a Syrian troop withdrawal almost as far as Damascus. The Syrians considered the Israeli attitude arrogant, particularly as President Assad had sent General Hikmat Shihabi, one of his closest advisers, to the meeting. Syrian agreement on resumed talks is expected to be given formally to Mr Christopher when he visits Damascus tomorrow.

President Clinton has given a high priority to keeping the process of peace talks going. Both Syria and Israel are willing to play along with this since neither wishes to be blamed by Washington for the breakdown in negotiations. A senior Israeli official said this week: "The Americans are spreading a lot of optimism after their visit to Damascus, but it should be looked at realistically. Good atmosphere isn't sufficient, we want to see results."