JERUSALEM (Jul. 29)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir seemed cautiously upbeat Monday over the chances that a Middle East peace conference will materialize.
He appeared especially pleased at the prospects of direct talks with Syria.
Some observers in fact suggested that the tough Likud leader would be prepared to cut some kind of deal with Syria over the Golan Heights, notwithstanding promises to his right-wing coalition partners that he would not even allow the subject on the agenda.
Shamir said Monday that he expected to “wrap up” still-outstanding issues related to the U.S.-proposed regional peace conference when Secretary of State James Baker returns to the region, probably this week.
Shamir also made clear that Israel’s response to the American proposals was essentially positive, as Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Foreign Minister David Levy and others have indicated in recent days.
But Baker would “still have to talk with other parties,” Shamir explained, while he himself has to submit his position to the Cabinet to “win the agreement of the ministers.”
There was no confirmation here Monday night of a CNN report that Baker might come to the Middle East, accompanied by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, to give impetus to regional peace talks.
Speculation continued, meanwhile, over Shamir’s more sanguine mood. Knesset members detected a “new tone” to his rhetoric during a briefing Monday to the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.
“We cannot live forever by the sword, but we will protect our security. That is the middle way,” the prime minister reportedly said.
A leading commentator, Dan Margalit, wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday that Shamir has already taken a giant step by comparing Syrian President Hafez Assad to Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the first — and so far only — Arab leader to make peace with Israel.
According to Margalit and other observers, Shamir may be prepared for a deal over the Golan Heights. The form it might take is the subject of vigorous speculation in the Jerusalem political community, among Knesset members and various pundits.
They say the trick will be for the Israel Defense Force to control the strategic heights while the Syrians get some land back.
Israeli newspapers have published reports from the United States that Syria would be prepared to allow Israeli settlements to remain in place under possible future peace arrangements.
There has been speculation that Israel might cede sovereignty over the Golan to Syria and then lease back all or part of the territory.
Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967 and virtually annexed the territory in 1980 by applying Israeli law there. It has not done the same in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
An opinion poll published Friday in the mass circulation Yediot Achronot showed 41 percent of the respondents favored territorial compromise over the Golan Heights. Other polls showed even higher percentages, compared to nearly unanimous disapproval before peace talks with Syria entered the realm of possibility.
“Shamir knows how to read polls,” Margalit observed.
But if the prime minister is indeed ready to compromise with Syria, he will not budge on the issue of Palestinian representation at the peace talks.
Shamir stressed to the Knesset committee, and in public comments afterwards, that there is “no room” for concessions there.
As far as the Likud government is concerned, Israel will refuse to meet with a Palestinian delegation that includes a resident of East Jerusalem or anyone connected with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It will talk only to residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, or Palestinians with Jordanian passports, except those living in East Jerusalem.
To back his argument, Shamir noted that the 1978 Camp David accords excluded East Jerusalem from the areas where Palestinians were to receive interim autonomy.
But Shimon Peres, chairman of the opposition Labor Party, has urged the government not to make an issue of this procedural point.
Peres, who says his party would accept a delegation containing East Jerusalem residents, maintained that even if they are excluded, the issue of East Jerusalem will be unavoidable once peace talks begin.