Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Slow Going on the Syria-Israel Peace Track ; Recent Diplomacy, Including a Jordan-Syria Meeting Sunday, May Spell

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Slow Going on the Syria-Israel Peace Track ; Recent Diplomacy, Including a Jordan-Syria Meeting Sunday, May Spell

Article excerpt

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 as "hollow."

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. …

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