The Battle for the Golan Heights

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After months of inactivity, the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process is very much on the move. And, as Andrew Album reports, an agreement maybe far closer than many People think.

Last summer, when Jordan followed the Palestinians into signing a peace deal with Israel, and other Arab countries on the periphery of the decades old conflict started to cosy-up to the Jewish state, many thought that a Jerusalem-Damascus deal would be quick to follow.

President Hafiz al-Assad, however, has been happy to bide his time and play hard to get. He has sat back and watched as Israeli leaders have publicly intimated that concessions are on offer and even enticed US President Bill Clinton to the Syrian capital, without offering anything concrete in return. Now, just as some have begun to question whether an agreement can be reached, Assad appears ready to deal.

In a recent address on Syrian national television, Assad not only admitted to his people that high level negotiations were taking place, but also prepared his audience for an eventual peace treaty. In an indirect attack on PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Jordanian monarch King Hussein, he recalled, "we earlier pledged that we would not advance a single step until others advanced as well." Now that any presence at a united Arab front had evaporated due to the actions of others, Syria had no option but to engage Israel.

"What can we do?" asked the Syrian president, "since the others have left us and gone forward? They say they have made it ahead of us. We do not want anyone to go backwards." His announcement was followed by the resumption of military talks in Washington between Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi and his new Israeli opposite number Amnon Shahak.

For an accord to be reached, the two sides must agree on what are termed as "the four legs of the peace table". The first is Israel's commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin has accepted that any deal will involve an Israeli withdrawal, but has refused to talk about the extent of a pull-back.

"The depth of Israel's withdrawal will be determined by the depth of peace," he declared. The second element is Syrian agreement to a normalisation of relations with Israel. Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Share has spoken of his aspiration for a "warm peace" but the Israeli public remains sceptical. The third element is the timetable for withdrawal. As Shara conceded some months ago "the truth is that Syria is talking of a speedy withdrawal within months while the Israelis are talking of a withdrawal within years." The final leg of the peace table is the security arrangements, which are more complex.

* To set the ball rolling, a series of confidence building measures are being proposed, such as joint border patrols, advance warning of military manoeuvres and training exercises, together with the installation of a direct communications link between the two armies' command centres.

* Israel will settle for nothing less than a complete demilitarisation of the Golan Heights and its hinterland, with the redeployment of the bulk of Syria's forces to Damascus and further east. As a quid pro quo, Israel will probably have to pull back some of its troops.

* To help eliminate the possibility of a surprise attack, Israel will seek to retain its early warning facilities on the Golan. These will provide the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) with a clear picture of what is happening, almost as far as Damascus. In return, the Syrians would expect an early warning station overlooking the Galilee. These would be bolstered by access to US satellite intelligence.

* One suggestion that has been raised on several occasions is the proposal to locate an international force on the Golan Heights, to cement the security arrangements. Fearful of a repetition of events in 1967, when UN troops evacuated at Egyptian President Nasser's behest, Jerusalem has been pushing for the US to provide such troops. …