Peres gambles on renewed Syrian talks

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The Independent Online
Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, is taking a gamble in restarting negotiations with Syria at a site close to Washington on 27 December. The initiative is risky for the Labour government because of the lack of support for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, without which peace with Syria is impossible, among voters and in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, announced on Saturday that talks between Israel and Syria on all aspects of a peace agreement are to resume. The US will take a bigger role as a broker between the two sides, a development welcome to Syria, which believes only Washington has leverage over Israel. If the first round of talks is successful, the Israeli press says, Mr Peres will formally tell the Knesset that Israel recognises Syrian sovereignty over the Golan, which it captured in 1967.

Mr Peres believes he can get an agreement in the next three or four months and is sending Uri Savir, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, as the main Israeli negotiator. However, Ehud Barak, the Foreign Minister, is reported to have told friends: "Everything is good and well, but no problem of essence has been solved yet, and I am afraid the problems will boomerang like a missile.''

Problems remaining include defining the line dividing Israel from the Golan; Israeli ground warning stations on the Heights, which Syria rejects; the extent of the military withdrawal on either side, and the future of Lebanon, dominated by Syria. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria may also doubt if Mr Peres has the strength to get the treaty accepted in Israel.

Likud, the main right-wing party, would much prefer to fight next year's election on the issue of Golan rather than on the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, which are a fait accompli and sanctified by Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, said the basis for the new talks with Syria was not give and take, but "give and give''.

Avigdor Kahalani, the Third Way party leader, which is splitting from Labour over Golan, said he and another member of the Knesset would vote against the government in no-confidence motions. Three religious parties being wooed by the government - the Religious Party, United Torah and Shas - also are opposed to withdrawal and will vote against it.