JERUSALEM (Jan. 27)
The Cabinet issued a statement today “reiterating Israel’s readiness to negotiate with Syria on troop disengagement immediately after the lists of POWs are handed over to Israel and the Red Cross is permitted to visit them.” This statement was issued after a seven-hour Cabinet meeting which discussed proposals brought last week from Damascus to Tel Aviv by U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger which he termed as “constructive ideas.” The Cabinet heard reports from Deputy Premier Yigal Allon and Foreign Minister Abba Eban in which they described their talks with Kissinger. Observers saw the positive tone of the Cabinet statement as strengthening earlier assessments that Israel would not reject out of hand the ideas Kissinger brought with him. These ideas are understood to center on some kind of middle-man arrangement whereby the International Red Cross or some other organization would receive the POW lists in advance of any negotiations.
Cabinet Secretary Michael Arnon refused to elaborate on the Cabinet’s statement or Kissinger’s ideas but sources indicated that the Cabinet, while discussing the broad outlines of what are known to be Kissinger’s and Syria’s positions and views on disengagement, did not go into maps and details that was thought to be premature so long as no movement is made on the POW issue. But even as the Cabinet was making its decision, a five-hour artillery exchange took place in the Golan Heights. The Syrians opened fire in the Kafr Nassej, Kafr Maas, Rafid Junction and Mazraat Ben Jan areas in the central and southern Golan. Israel returned the artillery and tank fire. There were no casualties. But yesterday in a three-hour exchange of fire in the same area, one Israeli soldier was killed and two wounded. These have been the most serious engagements along the Syrian line since Egypt and Israel signed the disengagement agreement on Jan. 18.
Before the Cabinet session, observers here predicted that Israel would not reject the Kissinger proposals but would try and see them as a basis for further progress. Only if a preliminary arrangement for POW names were attained would Kissinger consider another shuttling visit to the region to try and more the parties towards a disengagement, the observers thought. Well placed sources here say Israel’s offer to cede the two Syrian positions on Mt. Hermon and to allow back into the war zone some 15,000 civilian villagers who fled, still stands and is at the center of Kissinger’s efforts. In return for this offer Israel demands an actual exchange of prisoners. But. say the sources, there can be no discussion of the offer until the Israeli sine qua non of POW lists and visits is fulfilled.
If progress is made on this problem talks could take place then on actual disengagement. Kissinger is known to think that disengagement should involve Israeli withdrawal to the pre-Yom Kippur line with the interposition of a UNEF force in the vacated area and Syrian reduction of forces (and perhaps parallel Israeli reduction, too). Officials said here over the weekend that Israel had not concretized its position on disengagement since, at the moment, the POW problem was paramount and prevented any progress. The officials could not say what Syria’s views on the proposed disengagement would entail, either.
Well placed sources point out that there is far less pressure on Israel now with regard to Syrian disengagement than there was before and during the Israel-Egypt disengagement talks. But the Israel government is laboring under intense internal and psychological pressure because of the POW issue–and Syria, knowing this, and knowing that it has no real military cards to play, is determined to exploit Israel’s concern and sensitivity on this issue to a maximum.
These sources are cautiously confident that with Kissinger’s ongoing efforts in Washington a preliminary arrangement can be reached, settling the POW problem and opening the way to substantial disengagement talks. But they stress that the Damascus regime is beset by pressures from within and from without and the extent to which President Assad can maneuver under these pressures will vitally influence the chances of progress. Inside the Syrian Baath, in the Iraqi Baath, and among such extremist Arab regimes as the Libyan, there is still great suspicion of the Israel-Egypt disengagement accord and much wariness over possible Israel-Syria accommodations. Assad would have to be extremely diplomatic and tactful in weathering a course between these potential obstacles, the Israeli sources point out.