News Analysis: Warming Signals from Syria Elicit Hot Demonstrations from the Golan

Prospects for peace on the Israeli-Syrian track appear to be warming up, and so, too, are the efforts of those opposed to surrendering the Golan Heights.

As Israeli officials voiced a measure of satisfaction Sunday over a speech by Syrian President Hafez Assad the night before, Golan Heights settlement leaders and sympathetic politicians launched a hunger strike at the ancient ruins of Gamla on the Golan.

Assad, speaking in a televised address to his newly elected parliament, pledged Saturday night to accept “the objective requirements of peace.”

Foreing Minister Shimon Peres responded to Assad’s remarks, saying, “He is not talking war any more; he is talking peace.”

Speaking at a briefing for foreign correspondents, Peres nonetheless cautioned that serious negotiations with Syria still lie ahead. “They have not yet taken place,” the foreign minister said.

Other highly placed sources, while expressing gratification at the tone and tenor of Assad’s remarks, also insisted that a long and rocky road still lay ahead for Israeli and Syrian peacemakers.

The Assad speech appeared to be another step forward in the recently quickened pace of the Israeli-Syrian peace track. Diplomatic and political attention is increasingly focusing on this track both in the region and abroad.

Last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the first time outlined a two-stage land-for-peace proposal that would involve a testing period of limited withdrawal on the Golan over a three-year period.

And U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his top aides reportedly are consulting intensively about how they can best contribute to nudging the process forward. A quick shuttle by the secretary later this month is said to be in the works.

On the Golan Heights, meanwhile, settlement leaders vowed to escalate their campaign against surrendering the plateau. For more than a year now, the country has been dotted with banners proclaiming “The nation is with the Golan.” But the winds were taken from the movement’s sails when the breakthrough with the Palestine Liberation Organization a year ago removed the Syrian track from the top of the agenda.

Now, however, the battle is beginning to be waged in earnest, as symbolized by the site chosen for the hunger strike.

Gamla is a Second Temple-era fortress that fell to the Romans during the Jewish uprising (66-70 CE) after heroic resistance. Many of its defenders committed suicide rather than be taken captive.

On Saturday night, thousands of Golan settlers and their supporters rallied in the township of Katzrin, the so-called capital of the Golan Heights.

At the rally, Labor Knesset member Avigdor Kahalani urged Rabin to desist from his policy of withdrawal, and vowed to break with his party in the Knesset over the issue.

Kahalani heads a group of Labor parliamentarians who say they will submit legislation requiring approval by 65 percent of the nation in a plebiscite on withdrawal.

Rabin has pledged to hold a referendum before undertaking a significant withdrawal on the Heights.

Kahalani believes that while a majority of Jewish Israelis would oppose withdrawal, a referendum could pass with the votes of Israeli Arabs.

However, opinion polls published in the media last week indicated a groundswell of support among the general population for withdrawal-for-peace.

According to some political commentators, it was these polls that prompted the prime minister to confide in a radio interview last week that he is prepared for a three-year partial withdrawal period.

During this time, Israeli-Syrian “normalization” would be put into effect and tested, prior to a final withdrawal by Israel.

Rabin said later this partial withdrawal would be relatively small and probably would not involve settlements. But he did not spell out the dimensions of the envisaged final withdrawal.

Israel has until now demanded five years as a minimal period for testing the durability of normalization and security arrangements and the sincerity of Syrian intentions.

ANSWERS ISRAELI REPORTERS’ QUESTIONS

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa rejected Rabin’s offer, saying that “there is no need for a long period to conclude the withdrawal.”

But he also fueled the warming atmosphere last week, speaking of hopes for a “a warm peace” between Israel and Syria. And, for the first time, he answered questions from journalists who identified themselves as Israelis.

Israeli analysts said Assad’s address Saturday indicated awareness of the heightened political tensions in Israel and of the need to swing Israeli public opinion in his favor, particularly given Rabin’s pledged referendum.

Thus, Assad made a point of noting that the Syrians were “men of our word.”

“We mean what we say and keep our undertakings,” the Syrian president said.

Pro-withdrawal advocates in the Israeli domestic debate often stress that the Syrians have scrupulously adhered to the terms of the Separation of Forces agreement concluded with Israel in 1974.

That accord provided for a U.N. force of observers to monitor a narrow border zone on the Golan, with rigorous arrangements limiting forces on either side of the line. The limitation of forces on the Syrian side stretches much farther back than on the Israeli side, a situation which Israel insists will have to apply to new security provisions to be concluded in the context of a full peace treaty.

While stressing his determination to win back the entire Golan, and at the same time obliquely expressing his disapproval of the PLO and Jordan for making their separate peace with Israel, Assad, in his speech over the weekend, signaled — to the Israelis and to his own people — that he is prepared to move toward the kind of full peace with diplomatic and trade relations that Israel wants.

Assad also stressed, as he has in the past, that Syria’s decision to negotiate peace with Israel represents a “strategic” decision, not merely a tactical move.

It was particularly significant, Israeli experts said Sunday, that Assad gave these indications in a statement intended mainly for domestic consumption.

Israeli officials have long challenged the Syrian leader both to offer public gestures to the Israeli populace and to set about the important task of educating his own public to the nature of a real peace with the Jewish state.

His promise to accept the “objective requirements of peace” plainly was intended to convey to his audience, in the ornate Parliament chamber and beyond, the fact that peace with Israel will mean more than military redeployment.

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