March 2, 2000
Upping the Ante
Barak dangles the Golan, waits for Assad to grab it
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has placed his latest bet in the strange and frustrating poker game between Israel and Syria.
Now it is up to the Syrians to either see the bet and resume the stalled peace negotiations -- or fold and walk away from the game, perhaps for many years to come.
Israeli officials say the fateful decision must come from Damascus within weeks, or else, with the Clinton administration's term moving toward its end, the window of opportunity will close.
That window, however, may also be closed by another party -- the Knesset. In a crucial vote Wednesday, Israeli legislators gave preliminary approval to a bill that could kill the chances of a peace deal with Syria. The bill requires that a referendum by Israelis on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters rather than by the more easily attainable majority of those who actually vote.
In a double defeat for Barak, three of his coalition partners supported the opposition-sponsored bill, which faces two more Knesset votes. At present, according to the polls, the public's support in the referendum -- even if only a majority of those actually voting is required -- is by no means assured.
Barak put on a brave face after losing Wednesday's vote, predicting that the bill would be overturned. Two day's earlier, during an important Cabinet meeting, he was focused solely on his latest gambit with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Barak's move, coordinated in advance with Washington, was to state for the first time that Israel is prepared to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights to the border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
The offer is still somewhat ambiguous because, in Israel's view, that border is yet to be precisely demarcated.
Moreover, Barak still insists that he will not hand over any of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to Syria.
Just the same, a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 line means a total pullback from the towering Golan to the Galilee valley below. The geographical advantage secured by the Israeli army during the Six-Day War would be completely surrendered.
Barak, in a lengthy and carefully prepared policy review, claimed during a marathon Cabinet session Sunday that his four predecessors had all, in effect, secretly offered Syrian President Hafez Assad this same total withdrawal.
The difference was that now Barak was doing so formally and, in effect, publicly. Though he made the statement behind closed doors, his words were soon relayed to the media.
Damascus viewed his comments as the first confirmation of a long-held Syrian contention that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had told then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher he was willing to cede the Golan to Damascus in return for a full peace.
Formal negotiations between Israel and Syria resumed last December after being suspended for close to four years. The talks were again suspended in January, when Syria demanded that Israel state in writing that it is willing to withdraw from the Golan.
With the help of U.S. diplomats, there have been subsequent informal contacts. Washington is said to be pressing for agreement on the most substantive issues before a formal resumption of the negotiations in order to ensure that the process does not run aground again.
If this can be achieved, the two sides could sign a peace treaty this spring. Israeli officials maintain that this is a real possibility.
Barak's position now is:
* A phased Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to the prewar line
* Extensive demilitarization and limitation of forces on the Syrian side of the line
* Other security arrangements, including an Israeli presence for a period of years at the Mount Hermon surveillance station, which would be operated by the United States;
* Diplomatic relations at an early stage of the withdrawal process
* Other elements of normalization, including trade and tourism
* Agreement among Israel, Syria and Lebanon that would end the fighting in southern Lebanon and enable Israeli troops to return home by the summer.
For his part, Assad, is demanding an Israeli withdrawal before normalizing relations. He is also sticking to his demand that Israel provide a written commitment to withdraw from the Golan before the formal resumption of the negotiations.
Assad, moreover, denies that he ever agreed to a continued Israeli presence at the Hermon station, and that both sides demilitarize and limit their forces at equal distances from the border.
Israeli officials say that if these positions do not change there will be no deal.
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