In the labyrinthine world of Mideast peacemaking, windows of
opportunity are rare. But one of these windows appears to be opening
on the critical Syria-Israel peace track.
After three years of neglect on this front, as Israeli-
talks roller-coasted and eventually stalled, there seems to be a new
confluence of mutual interests in a Syria-Israel peace that includes
Lebanon, with the United States resuming its role as "honest
The catalyst has been the election defeat on May 17 of hard-line
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had ruled out any
return to Syria of the Golan Heights - Syria's chief demand - which
Israel occupied in 1967.
Israel's new left-leaning leader Ehud Barak - a former army chief
of staff - has promised to pull Israeli troops out of southern
Lebanon and has indicated that any deal there must include Syria -
the main power broker in Lebanon.
Much will depend on the political makeup of Mr. Barak's coalition
government, to be formed by July. Still, Syria especially, under
President Hafez al-Assad, is anxious to end one of the thorniest
disputes in the Mideast, analysts say.
"You can use the word 'eager,' but don't think that Syria will
take just any peace," says Murhaf Jouejati, an American-educated
political analyst in Damascus. "They are very serious about the
Golan, and about getting back all the Golan. This is uppermost in
Mr. Assad's strategic calculi. It is the principle: Syria is very
genuine about making peace, but it is not willing to give Israel a
right where it has none."
International law rejects the acquisition of land by force, and
United Nations Security Council resolutions have required Israel to
withdraw from the Golan for the past 32 years.
Contrary to the widespread belief in Israel that Syria had used
the strategic plateau to shell Israel, the commander who seized the
Golan, Moshe Dayan, reportedly said later that the primary motive
to take the rich farmland and water for local Jewish farmers. Of the
78 shooting incidents that did occur on the Golan border from May
1955 to the outbreak of the 1967 war, UN military observers are
reported to have found that Israel was at fault in 74.
In June 1967 the Israeli cabinet voted to return the Golan, but
instead it was held and illegally annexed in 1981. Talks on the
matter made headway until February 1996, when Israel then cut them
off for domestic reasons. Mr. Netanyahu encouraged more building,
and now some 17,000 Jewish settlers populate more than 35
Soon after Barak's Labor Party victory, European Union envoy
Miguel Moratinos traveled to Damascus and emerged saying that Syria
felt that "Labor can achieve the final peace with Syria."
On the American side, analysts believe that high-level attention
from Washington is required. A "critical element here is a serious
and sustained commitment in word and deed" by the president and
secretary of State, noted one assessment by the James A. …