In a development seen as a significant step forward in the Syrian-Israeli peace process, Syria has announced that it is prepared to accepted the presence of surveillance stations on the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal from the area.
However, the Syrian position is that such stations cannot be staffed by Israeli personnel, but by “international or friendly forces.”
Syria’s move this week appeared to confirm a growing impression that the peace process — on the Syrian as well as on the Palestinian tracks — is moving ahead faster than the media have given it credit for.
Syria’s position, aired on a radio broadcast Monday from Damascus, is seen as a reversal of Syria’s previous rejection of any form of land-based surveillance on its sovereign soil.
The position assumes an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace accord with Syria.
The Syrian announcement came just hours before the Clinton administration’s special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, began a shuttle visit to Jerusalem and Damascus in order to push the Israeli-Syrian talks forward.
Ross met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and top aides and military officers Monday evening in Jerusalem. Ross flew to Damascus on Tuesday.
Ross was working to arrange for talks between senior Israeli and Syrian military officers in Washington later this month. These negotiations would serve as a follow-up to three days of talks between the two countries’ chiefs of staff — Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak of Israel and his Syrian counterpart, Hikmat Shihabi — in the U.S. capital in late June.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is reported to be planning a shuttle of his own in late July or early August — and that would be followed, assuming all is still on course, by a round of military and civilian negotiations in Washington later in August.
Israeli policy-makers were expected to welcome Syria’s readiness to accept land-based surveillance facilities on the Golan, as the available airborne equipment does not, according to experts, provide an adequate alternative.
Current airborne equipment includes: * U.S. satellites providing photographs to the two sides. Such arrangements have been in force since the 1974 Israeli- Syrian disengagement agreement on the Golan, which followed the Yom Kippur War. It is up to Washington to decide what information to provide and at what speed. * Israel’s own satellite. The latest Israeli communications satellite, Ofek 3, is reported by foreign sources to be capable of beaming intelligence information back to Tel Aviv — but at considerably less sharp resolution than the best American space-based cameras. * Airplane-based photographic and electronic equipment. This is highly accurate, even from side-angle shots that do not require a spy plane to cross the border. But the time of day or night and weather conditions have an impact on the efficacy of such information.
Land-based installations on mountaintops in the Galilee can watch over activity on the Golan, but not between the Golan and Damascus — the area currently covered by Israel’s installations on Mt. Hermon and on other Golan peaks.
Informed sources in Jerusalem, reacting to Syria’s new position regarding surveillance stations on the Golan, said this week that Israel would want to have all the available airborne equipment in addition to U.S.-staffed ground stations on the Golan.
Beyond the specifics of an agreement regarding the surveillance stations – - which is still to be hammered out in negotiations — Israeli sources welcomed the Syrian move as signaling an apparent resolve in Damascus to move ahead quickly in the peace process.
The Clinton administration has been urging the two sides to regard the end of 1995 as the effective closure of the “window of opportunity” for reaching a breakthrough in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, given the fact that 1996 is a election year both in the United States and Israel.
Israel sources said Syria has indicated in the past that it was prepared to accept American or other internationally staffed surveillance facilities on the Golan. But it subsequently backed away from that position and adopted a more inflexible stance, rejecting all ground-based facilities on the Golan as an infringement on Syrian sovereignty.
Similarly, these sources said, Syria appears now to be returning to an earlier position — recently dropped in favor of a harder line — that recognized Israel’s demand for deeper demilitarized and limitation-of-forces zones on the Syrian side of the border than on the Israeli side.
Israel has argued that the topography of the region — once the Golan is returned — would give the distinct advantage to Syria, and would therefore justify deeper security restraints on the Syrian side.
The notion that the peace process may be moving faster than the media has reported is evidence, in part, by the surveillance issue.
There was no indication in the Israeli media, after the recent talks between the chiefs of staff in Washington, that the land-based surveillance stations had become a viable proposition again.
Similarly, the imminence of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the second phase of Palestinian self-rule seems to have taken the Israeli and Palestinian media somewhat by surprise.
While reporters in the region and abroad focused on the missed July 1 deadline for reaching an agreement to extend Palestinian self-rule to the West-Bank, negotiators for the two sides apparently have been working behind the scenes to ensure a signing ceremony before the end of the month.
Large delegations for the two sides were due to convene this week at an undisclosed site in Italy for an intensive effort, far from the glare of the media spotlight, to bridge remaining gaps and prepare a final agreement.
Among the issues still unresolved: * Arrangements for Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem to stand for office and to vote in the Palestinian elections; * Arrangements for joint patrols and separate police work in the rural areas of the West Bank once the Israel Defense Force has redeployed from most of the main Palestinian towns there; * Control of water resources in the West Bank.
Confirmation of the extent of progress already made by the two sides came Monday from Rabin himself.
“There is no going back on the agreement,” a determined-sounding prime minister told a delegation of West Bank Jewish settlers who were meeting with him at his initiative to review the evolving accord.
The prime minister said the IDF would do its utmost to provide security for the 120,000 Jewish residents of the West Bank. He added that the agreement sought to avoid any contact between settlers and members of the Palestinian police force.
But the settler leaders came away from the meeting somber and angry, warning of inevitable clashes between them, and the Palestinians once the Israeli army is redeployed out of the main Palestinian cities.