Just a few months ago, when Israelis elected a peace-talking
prime minister, the Syria-Israel rift appeared to be coming
together. Though still technically at war with each other, both
sides engaged in unusually warm rhetoric and mutual praise. Hopes
were high for a resumption of talks.
But in the face of increasing misperceptions and mixed signals,
the Syrians - and their public optimism - have gone "right back to
the trenches," says a Western diplomat.
For its part, Israel is literally digging in: Last month it began
construction of 700 new housing units in the Golan Heights, which
Israel captured from Syria in 1967. And two weeks ago Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Barak approved a series of financial incentives for
new Jewish settlers in the occupied territory.
Mr. Barak, nevertheless, recently asked Syria's President Hafez
al-Assad to "walk through the door of opportunity" with him "for the
sake of the children ... for a peace of courage and dignity."
Syria's official Tishreen newspaper on Saturday dismissed that call
It's all added up to confusion. "[The Syrians] are more
bewildered than anything else. They are asking if Barak is seriously
committed to peace," says a Western envoy in Damascus. "They think
they have gone too far too fast and feel that it was interpreted as
weakness by the Israelis. If I were an Israeli, I would not think
that this [peace] was a fait accompli."
Still, both sides have incentives to move forward. Barak has
vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by next July -
a move that, to go smoothly, would require making a land-for-peace
deal with Syria by handing back the Golan Heights. And Syria's aging
president wants an agreement that will conclude "unfinished
business" and help pave the way for the succession of his son.
Recent diplomacy may be a sign of progress. Syria's Foreign
Minister Farouk al-Sharaa met twice with US Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright earlier this month. On Sunday, Jordan's foreign
minister was in Damascus for talks with Mr. Assad.
But reputable assessments run the gamut. One observer with close
Syria and Lebanon ties predicts there will be an "announcement" on
the resumption of talks within a month; other sources who made high-
level contact with Israeli officials say that the Syria track, as
far as Israel is concerned, is "dead as a doornail."
At any rate, Syria and Israel are both trying to set
preconditions for talks. For a generation, Syria has demanded that
Israel totally withdraw from the Golan to the border that existed on
June 4, 1967, based on United Nations Security Council resolutions
requiring such a pullback. …