Syria and Israel look like easing closer

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With public diplomacy between Israel and Syria being conducted in a less glacial tone than usual in Barcelona this week, there are signs that Israel and Syria are moving towards each other. The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, yesterday hailed the rapprochement between the countries' foreign ministers that took place at the conference on Monday as "a significant milestone in the Middle East peace process."

Speaking in Barcelona, Mr Rifkind said: "There was a dialogue across the table, perhaps the first time this has happened. It is a useful step to the resumption of Israeli-Syrian dialogue. Israeli and Syrian foreign ministers spoke to each other. That is an important point and we appreciate it . . . A bilateral meeting may be possible in a few weeks' time." Ehud Barak, the new Israeli Foreign Minister, speaking to his Syrian counterpart had said: "We have been rivals on the battlefield, and shed the blood of our courageous soldiers, the finest sons of Israel and Syria. Let us now make peace."

Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian Foreign Minister, summoned members of his delegation and left the room to consult about their reply. When he returned he said Syria offered "a full peace in return for full withdrawal" by Israel from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967. Mr Barak said the Syrian response contained "positive messages."

But nothing in the Middle East is what it appears to be, and such public diplomacy holds dangers. Both sides were on best behaviour in front of the media and leaders from 27 Mediterranean countries gathered in Barcelona. In particular, neither Israel nor Syria wants to offend Washington.

Assessment in Jerusalem is sombre. Dr Dore Gold, an expert on the negotiations with Syria at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that neither the Syrian nor the Israeli positions has changed. He says, nevertheless, it is important to see what changes, if any, Shimon Peres, the new Prime Minister, makes in the Israeli position.

Syria, which offered no condolences to Israel over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, will be asking itself the same question. It will also want to know more about Mr Barak. Chief-of-Staff of the Israeli army at the beginning of the year, he had already entered the cabinet as Interior Minister when the assassination of Mr Rabin on 4 November made him Foreign Minister. "Is Barak going to be a loyal lieutenant to Peres to obtain the succession as prime minister or will he carve his own political and military viewpoint?" Dr Gold asks.

The difficulty is that far more is involved than the Golan Heights, though resolving their future is complex enough. Israel is willing to withdraw - though the position of a new frontier line is unclear. Also in dispute is the extent of the pullback of troops. Israel wants 24-hour- a-day monitoring from ground stations - notably that on top of Mount Hermon - to prevent a surprise attack. Israel says it needs early warning because Syria has a large standing army while the Israeli forces depend on reserves. It also wants the Syrian army redeployed away from the Golan, with only limited forces south of Damascus.

All this may be too much for President Hafez al-Assad of Syria to swallow. He is being asked to make more concessions than at first appear. Professor Gold believes the recovery of the Golan only ranks third in Syria's priorities, its first concerns being its predominance in Lebanon and relations with the US. Syria also knows that the pay-off for the US in arranging an agreement is to get Damascus to break with Iran, Washington's prime enemy and President Assad's closest ally in the Middle East.