Syria sees Labour victory as only chance for peace

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Beirut - "He who claims that it is possible to achieve peace and security while keeping the Golan and other Arab lands is calling for war, not for peace." According to the official news agency Sana, those were the exact words of Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian Foreign Minister. And so, after months of claiming that Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu were as bad as each other, Syria, it seemed, had at last decided to support the Israeli Labour Prime Minister in today'selection.

The conclusion may be a little trite - Mr Peres has hedged his promises on Golan and is already announcing that there will be no dismantling of Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land and no chance that any part of Jerusalem will be a Palestinian capital - and Mr al-Sharaa's words might be addressed to both contenders in the Israeli election. But it was difficult to dismiss the idea that Syria would be happier with Mr Peres than Mr Netanyahu. A policy of holding on to the occupied Golan Heights, Mr al- Sharaa maintained, "will for sure destroy all chances of peace in the region and no Arab anywhere can deal with such a policy".

The minister was speaking at a Damascus press conference after a meeting with Farouk al-Kaddoumi, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's dissident "foreign minister", who long ago condemned Yasser Arafat's peace agreement with Israel as an act of treachery. His message may therefore have been addressed to Palestinians as much as to the rest of the Arab world. In effect, however, Mr al-Sharaa was telling the Israelis - and the Americans - that only Mr Peres's re-election will enable the already crumbling "peace process" to survive.

How this will play in Israel is anyone's guess. With the tiniest lead in the opinion polls, Mr Peres cannot expect to gain more Israeli votes with a last- minute call to "Vote for Peres - the man the Syrians trust". Nor, after the debacle of Israel's latest Lebanese adventure - which ended in the bloodbath of civilians at the UN camp at Qana - will Mr Peres wish to remind Israelis of his most recent brush with Syria's Hizbollah allies. Indeed, he may prefer to reflect upon the official Syrian line, espoused in Monday's official Damascus daily Al Baath, that neither he nor Mr Netanyahu stood for the achievement of a just peace in the Middle East.

"The [televised] debate on Sunday [between Mr Peres and Mr Netanyahu] made it crystal-clear there is no difference between them regarding the peace process, since they both confirmed the continued occupation of Jerusalem and that their position on the Golan Heights was the same," the newspaper said. "The Israeli leaders ... directed most of their attention at electoral gains which would be achieved at the expense of the Arabs and their rights."

Ever since the April bombardment which Mr Peres unleashed on Lebanon - which the Arabs interpreted as a cynical election ploy rather than a response to the Hizbollah's puny rocket attacks in retaliation for the death of a Lebanese boy - there has been growing suspicion that Syria would be content with a Likud victory in today's election. Since the United States is evidently unwilling to ensure a just peace or restrain Israel - so the theory goes - then the only way to break Israel's power is by weakening its links with Washington; and how better to do that than by forcing the Americans into bed with an Israel controlled by Likud politicians who have no interest in peace with the Arabs?

This may well be the view of that crusty old maverick, Muammar Gaddafi, who vouchsafed the view at a Cairo University lecture on Monday that the Israeli artillery assault, which killed up to 200 Lebanese civilians, was staged solely to ensure Mr Peres's re-election. "Are we going to offer our children as a human sacrifice every four years for the Israeli and American elections?" the Libyan leader asked. The official Libyan government newspaper Al Jamahariya - an organ of such stunning boredom that few Libyan officials can stand to read it - announced that the Arabs would be the only losers in the Israeli election and that Labour and Likud represented "only the double gates of Hell".