A miracle would be handy in Galilee

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Watchers of the Arab world have long suggested that the twilight zone is engulfing Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, and that he is becoming more forgetful by the day. But he has kept one memory intact. He can still remember the days when he swam in the Sea of Galilee.

He remembers catching fish in its crystal waters; he can remember holding barbecues on its stony beaches. No matter that this was more than 30 years ago, when the sea's north-eastern shores were under Syrian control, before the land was lost to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, along with the Syrian Golan Heights. He recalls it all. And he wants it back.

This week it became clear that the chief reason for the failure of Sunday's summit in Geneva between Bill Clinton and Mr Assad was a fundamental disagreement over the fresh-water sea (also known as Lake Tiberias and, to the Israelis, the Kinneret).

The Syrians want the Israelis to agree to withdraw to the positions held on 4 June 1967 - the day before war broke out - by returning the occupied Golan Heights and restoring to Syria the lake's north-eastern shores, an area of about one fifth of its 33-mile circumference. In this, Syria believes it has the weight of international law on its side, not least UN Resolution 242 which calls on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied during the war. Anything less would comprise, in Damascus's view, the loss of what is legally Syria's.

It emerged during the Geneva negotiations that the Israelis are now willing to leave the Golan, but not to withdraw to the exact line of 4 June 1967. They want to keep a 100-yard wide strip of land along the lake's eastern edge in order to block the Syrians' access to the water. The lake provides 40 per cent of Israel's water; fears abound that Syria would seek to pump water for its own purposes or to pollute it.

Syria has made assurances that this would not happen. A "senior source" in Damascus, quoted by Israel's Yediot Ahronoth newspaper, said that Mr Assad gave President Clinton a guarantee not to use the water, so long as Syria got its part of the shoreline back. But Israel remains unconvinced.

Another factor muddies the waters further. Ehud Barak, Israel's premier, has promised to hold a national referendum on the return of the Golan, should Israel strike a deal with the Syrians. The mediating Americans have tried to convince Mr Assad that Mr Barak's referendum would founder if Syria gets the shoreline back, as the Israeli electorate would conclude that the deal is tantamount to giving away the Kinneret. But Mr Assad has shown no inclination to help his enemy out of a hole of its own making - especially if it means giving away precious Arab land for ever.

He has his own position to consider. Syria is no democracy - far from it - but this week the Syrians have been spreading word that a deal which left the shores of the lake in Israeli hands would not go down well domestically, as it would not be seen as peace with honour. They point out that every child in Syria knew that their forefathers bathed in the lake before 1967. Mr Assad is said to have made a point of reminiscing to Mr Clinton last week about how he swam in the Sea of Galilee's warm waters.

So the process is in trouble again. Mr Clinton has blamed the Syrians for Geneva's failure, although Mr Assad merely stuck by a position held for 20 years. The ball, says the American president, is now in Syria's court. Happy in the knowledge that Syria is taking the rap for scuttling the talks, Mr Barak seems set to withdraw Israeli troops from the Lebanon occupation zone by July without an agreement - despite the risk that this could lead to more bloodshed.

Only nine days ago, the Pope was on the Sea of Galilee reminding the world that it was a place of miracles - of loaves and fishes, and walking on water. Now it looks like another miracle is required.