Leading Article: Where there's a will, there's a peace

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL's announcement that it may hold a referendum on withdrawal from the Golan Heights seems to bring peace with Syria much nearer. The statement comes hard on the heels of American claims of a breakthrough at Bill Clinton's meeting with Hafez al-Assad in Geneva on Sunday, when the Syrian president said he wanted normal relations with Israel. Coupled with an admission on 8 January by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, that he is now willing to discuss total withdrawal from the Golan Heights, these developments reinforce the impression that the largest obstacle to peace has been removed.

A closer look at what is happening suggests it is still too early to celebrate. There is indeed movement on both sides, which are said to have been in contact for many months, but the gap between them remains wide. Mr Assad's terms for peace are unchanged. He demands Israeli withdrawal not only from the Golan Heights, but also from south Lebanon and all the areas occupied since 1967, plus the creation of an independent Palestinian state, since it has always been his position that he will not make peace separately from the rest of the Arab world.

On the Israeli side, Mr Rabin appears to have accepted the inevitability of withdrawing from the Golan Heights and Lebanon, but he is a long way from being able to take public opinion with him. Polls show that only 6 per cent of Israelis are willing to relinquish the Golan Heights, which loom threateningly close to parts of their country, as well as being home to about 13,000 Israeli settlers. Nor will there be public support for any policy that risks allowing Hizbollah guerrillas to return to the northern border of Israel. Mr Rabin will therefore have to win very convincing security guarantees to swing opinion in favour of withdrawing from these sensitive areas.

None of this means, however, that peace is wholly out of reach. On both sides there is now more will for it than ever before. Mr Assad, having experienced the economic benefits of supporting the United States against Iraq in the Gulf war - about dollars 4bn (pounds 2.8bn) in aid from various sources - wants to consolidate his transformation from tyrant and sponsor of terrorism to respected statesman and father of a just peace.

Israeli opinion is meanwhile coming round to the view that there is more security to be had from peace on the right terms than from armed confrontation. The problem for both sides is to find the right terms. That will still take time, and it is Mr Rabin who will have to take the greater risks.

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