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Israel Faces Dilemma with Syria As It Continues Search for Peace

This week’s serious escalation of violence on the Lebanese border, coupled with a diplomatic waiting game in Washington, illustrates the dilemma Israel faces in its search for peace with Syria.

In Washington this week, Israel waited in frustration for the Syrians to signal that they were ready to add high-ranking military officers to the discreet but largely unproductive bilateral diplomatic talks continuing in the U.S. capital.

And in the security zone in southern Lebanon, almost daily battles with Hezbollah, the Islamic fundamentalist movement, reached a crisis point Monday with the deaths, in two separate incidents, of two Israeli soldiers.

Following the Hezbollah attacks on Monday, Israeli guns replied with one of the heaviest artillery barrages in the area in recent months.

The intensification of the mini-war between Israel and its allied South Lebanese Army on the one side, and Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups on the other, have inevitably raised questions in Israel regarding Syrian involvement in the Lebanon attacks.

It also raises the possibility of a connection between the violence on the ground and the stalemated diplomatic process with the Syrians at the table.

Put bluntly, Israelis are wondering: Are the Syrians actively encouraging or passively ignoring the Hezbollah attacks? Could Syria, as some Israeli leaders have been suggesting, prevent all or most of the attacks if it wished?

On the Washington negotiating front, President Clinton elicited an agreement from Syrian President Hafez Assad when they met in Damascus in October to add Israeli and Syrian military officers to the ongoing talks in Washington.

Those talks are primarily between Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovitch, and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.

After weeks of delay, Syria reportedly authorized military representatives to join the talks in Washington on Tuesday.

There is a general atmosphere of deadlock in the ambassadorial negotiations, with irregular sessions taking place every two or three weeks.

The slow pace on the part of the Syrians has fueled skepticism here over whether Assad comprehends the Israeli political process and the demands it imposes on the peace process.

Does the Syrian president believe that Israel and Syria have time to make their breakthrough right up until the next elections in Israel, which must be held by November 1996?

Does Assad understand that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s political strength is visibly eroding, in part because the peace process appears to be running out of steam on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks?

Israeli analysts wonder whether the United States and other Western nations make a point during contacts with Damascus of underscoring the fragile state of the Rabin coalition.

Most recent political polls have shown Rabin running neck-and-neck with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. And one recent poll in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reportedly showed Netanyahu with a slight lead over Rabin.

While Rabin could theoretically reach a deal with Assad months or even weeks before the election, in practice his time is already beginning to run out.

If there is no sense of momentum built up during the first months of 1995, the Rabin government, beset by economic difficulties, could implode, triggering early elections.

Or more likely, the government could simply conclude that it lacks the popular support needed for a major move like reaching a land-for-peace deal on the Golan Heights, which is generally assumed to be a requirement for any accord with Syria.

In public comments this week, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres effectively confirmed that there has been at least one meeting between Israeli and Syrian officers in the recent past.

But in the same breath, Peres cast doubt on whether the current, relatively low level of diplomatic contacts could actually produce the breakthrough that the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track needs.

“I tend to doubt it,” Peres said.

In an effort to get the stalled negotiations moving, Peres has long been urging – without success – a meeting between himself and his Syrian counterpart as a way of upgrading the dialogue and investing it with new vigor.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has accused Peres and the government of planning to strike a secret deal with the Syrians.

His harder-line Likud colleague, Ariel Sharon, solemnly vowed that if such an agreement is reached, the Likud will refuse to implement it if and when it is returned to power.

Labor spokesmen replied by reiterating their party’s pledge to submit any Golan agreement to the people for its approval, by referendum or election, before the agreement is ratified.

But there are members of Rabin’s party, and indeed even within his Cabinet, who seem increasingly disenchanted with the idea of a deep or total withdrawal on the Golan.

At the same time, the escalation of fighting in southern Lebanon poses yet another problem for the prime minister: To what extent, if at all, is his military freedom of action limited by the very fact that he is attempting to negotiate with Syria?

Likud leaders like Netanyahu and Sharon insisted this week that the government’s ability to hit back hard at Hezbollah was limited by its negotiations with Syria.

The Likud opposition’s attacks on the government seemed reinforced by an embarrassing spat within the military.

Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, the new commander of the northern sector, which includes all operations in southern Lebanon, appeared to be contemplating a major military action against Hezbollah bases outside of the security zone.

While his remarks were quickly disclaimed by the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, Barak himself sought to dispel the impression that Israel is pulling its punches in Lebanon out of concern for the peace process with Syria.

But in comments this week, Barak also said that if Israel approached Syria with a request to curb Hezbollah action in Lebanon, Israel’s negotiating position could the weakened.

In a further effort to quell the notion of a weak resolve, Peres denied that political constraints were being placed on army operations.

“Any peace negotiations will never prevent or interfere with taking the required measures to ensure quiet and security in the north,” the foreign minister said.

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