Syria-Israel Deal Propels Peace in the Mideast Damascus Concedes on a Buffer Zone

Article excerpt

THE stop-and-go Mideast peace process received a forward jolt with Syria and Israel reaching a first-ever framework agreement on security in the strategic Golan Heights.

But an apparent concession by Syria may not be enough to ensure a complete agreement for a partial or full Israeli withdrawal from the 18-mile-wide strip, which Israel seized as a military buffer zone in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, with talks set to resume by the end of June, both sides are under pressure to seal a deal before scheduled November 1996 Israeli elections, in which the right-wing Likud Party could win and halt the peace process.

The United States-brokered accord, announced Wednesday, helps restart talks that have been suspended for six months. Negotiations between Syria and Israel first began in 1991. The breakthrough follows recent visits to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, plus several exchanges between the ambassadors of the two countries.

Syria dropped its demand that the two sides pull their troops back an "identical" distance from the Golan -- a symmetry Israel rejected because it is a far smaller country.

Instead, both sides will now seek "mutual" security zones.

"Syria has pressed for equality in the entire package and in each element," says Robert Satlof, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. "Israel says equality is not necessary in each element, but you can still end up with an equal package."

Israel's acceptance of a formula that accommodates its concerns opens the way for a new talks between Syria and Israel. The agreement follows Mr. Rabin's decision to halt a planned confiscation of Arab land in East Jerusalem for Jewish housing, which has sparked strong US and Arab reaction.

In Jerusalem, Israeli leaders echoed statements by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher calling the agreement an "important development."

But both Israel and Syria are operating with the knowledge that unless some agreement is reached soon, any chance for peace could fall victim to domestic politics in 1996 Israeli national elections.

Mr. Rabin knows that a peace with Syria based on full diplomatic recognition of Israel by Damascus could be crucial to his own reelection hopes.

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is also mindful of the ancillary benefits of peace: better relations with the US, the belated removal of Syria from the US list of terrorist states, and possible US economic aid. …