Talks begin over Golan Heights

Israeli withdrawal is price of peace, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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The Independent Online
The Israeli and Syrian chiefs of staff begin talks in Washington today about an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria. President Bill Clinton has made a major effort to prevent negotiations foundering.

Israel is also demanding that Syria restrain the Hizbollah guerrillas who are fighting to expel Israel's forces from their nine-mile-wide occupation zone in south Lebanon.

In the past week, Hizbollah rockets killed one man and wounded eight others in northern Israel in retaliation for the death of a woman killed by Israeli artillery fire in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders said yesterday that they have received assurances from Syria, through American intermediaries, that it wants to maintain a 1993 understanding whereby Hizbollah will not rocket northern Israel if the Israelis do not bomb Lebanese villages north of their occupation zone.

The Israeli chief of staff, General Amnon Lipkin- Shahak, and his Syrian opposite number, General Hikmat Shihabi, will meet at a secret location in Washington, but spokesmen will give some account of what has been discussed immediately afterwards.

Both are military chiefs of staff, and former heads of military intelligence, with close ties to their political leaders and reputations as tough, astute negotiators. One observer called the pair "the best" their countries' could offer.

Last December, talks were broken off because Syria said Israel had made "impossible" demands.

Israeli leaders have publicly conceded that there will be no peace treaty without the return of the Golan, captured by Israel in 1967. The exact line of the new frontier has yet to be determined, but at the heart of the three-day talks in Washington will be security measures and the extent of demilitarisation on each side.

Israel and the US are also looking for a transformation of Syria's political position in the Middle East, equivalent to that of Egypt in 1979. The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, says negotiations are not just about the Golan, but about ending Syria's alliance with Iran. Syria would also have to end support for Hizbollah in the event of a peace treaty.

In Washington, General Shahak will present maps to the Syrians showing proposals for total demilitarisation of the Golan itself, as well as a withdrawal of Syrian forces to a point halfway to Damascus. Beyond that point, Israel wants a limit on Syrian tanks, right up to the outskirts of Syria's capital.

It may also ask the Syrians to build a barrier impassable by their own tanks.

Israeli public opinion is still opposed to giving back the Golan, according to polls. The Deputy Foreign Minister,Yossi Beilin, recently said: "From the security aspect, the Golan Heights isn't as important as it is described as being."

But he said the efforts of successive Israeli governments to portray the Golan as vital tosecurity had proved too successful, making their abandonment less acceptable to the public.

The Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, says there would have to be three full years of normal relations with Syria before a full Israeli withdrawal.

That would have the advantage, from Mr Rabin's point of view, of at least being able to present the Israeli public with a peace treaty before next year's general election.