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News Analysis: is Israel-syria Track Viable? U.S. Envoy Seeks an Answer

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Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres has insisted publicly that he is ready to reopen negotiations with Syria.

But the question remains whether he – and the Israeli public – is ready for such a move.

In an attempt to answer this question, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross visited Jerusalem over the weekend for discussions with top Israeli leaders.

Ross’ visit and his agenda here would normally pass almost without comment. There have been countless such visits in the past, during which American diplomats have attempted to unjam the gridlock on the Israel-Syria negotiating track.

This time, however, Ross’ mission had a new twist: Washington wanted to reach its own assessment of whether the Israeli people, still reeling from the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, are capable of re-engaging in an inevitably wrenching and controversial land-for-peace negotiation with the Syrians during the months ahead.

Peres, who will soon become prime minister, has said his chief concern is reaching a full peace with all Israel’s neighbors – even if this policy proves electorally damaging to himself and to his party.

This was most likely the tenor of Peres’ closed-door statements to Ross.

But informed political observers suggest that Peres’ enthusiasm to pursue the Syrian track during this election year will be influenced primarily by the attitude of the Clinton administration.

If the Americans are avid and active in their diplomatic effort to remove the obstacles on the Israel-Syria track, then Peres will hardly be able to drag his feet.

If President Clinton proves determined to push for a breakthrough between Jerusalem and Damascus as an important and urgent American interest, that American determination in itself could provide the fuel for a new surge forward in the long-stagnant Israeli-Syrian dialogue.

Syrian President Hafez Assad broke off discussions between Israeli and Syrian military leaders, who last convened in Washington in late June.

A major stumbling block in the negotiations has been the issue of security measures that would be put into place on the Golan in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal.

At the same time, however, Peres’ domestic political interest in leaving the dialogue dormant, at least until Israel’s national elections are held in November 1996, seems self-evident to many domestic political pundits for a number of reasons: * A vigorous resumption of the talks in Washington – and an upgrading in the level of those participating in the negotiations – would immediately rekindle the national controversy over Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the price for peace with Syria.

Polls taken in recent months show consistent opposition – in excess of 50 percent – to a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, which is Syria’s unwavering demand.

Even if, as many observers believe, this opposition would shrink once a deal where struck, a large core of disgruntled citizens would remain.

The Israeli public, arguably, is sufficiently traumatized by the killing of Rabin and its aftermath not to need additional sources of friction and division in the immediate future.

Peres might well lose more votes than he would gain from going into the election on a Golan-for-peace platform. * There are similar controversies brewing within Peres’ own party and governing coalition.

Soon after Rabin’s death, senior figures in the Labor Party held a series of reconciliatory meetings with party rebels Avigdor Kahalani and Emanuel Zismann, seeking pledges of support for Peres’ new government.

In October, Kahalani Zismann, two of the Labor Party’s most outspoken hawks, voted with the Likud opposition against ratification of the Interim Agreement for extending Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank. They then publicly announced the creation of a new party, the Third Way, to enter the ’96 elections on an anti-Golan withdrawal platform.

Any revival of diplomatic activity on the Syrian track would presumable shatter any hopes of drawing them back into the Labor fold. * Syria’s failure to offer condolences for the death of Rabin has sickened and frustrated even the most pro-peace circles in the Israeli government.

Twice in recent days, Peres has publicly admonished President Assad for this lapse.

He reminded the Syrian leader that despite the frosty distance between their two countries, he and Rabin nonetheless sent their condolences to Damascus over the death last year of Basil Assad, the president’s eldest son.

The Syrian leader’s refusal to voice regrets over Rabin’s death is seen here as confirming his reluctance to enter into any real normalization of relations with the Jewish state. This, for Peres as much as it was for Rabin, is Israel’s sine qua non in the negotiations. * The wider world, including even the Arab world, may be getting used to the notion that Middle East peace might be less than comprehensive – because of the Syrian regime’s unbending hostility toward the Jewish state.

Rabin’s funeral was the most dramatic example of the international community’s growing respect for Israel in the wake of its peace accords with Egypt, Jordan and, most especially, the Palestinians, who were regarded as a core issue of the regional conflict.

This respect was reflected in important sectors of the Arab world – as evidenced by the attendance at the funeral of Arab statesmen from the Persian Gulf and North Africa along with representatives of those Arab countries formally at peace with the Jewish state.

“Assad to longer scares the whole region,” an unnamed Jordanian official was quoted as saying in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz this week.

If Assad continues to balk at the idea of a full normalization of relations with Israel, more and more Israelis will conclude that peace with Syria will be unattainable as long as he rules in Damascus – and there will be few in the region or the wider world who will argue with this conclusion.

But the signals from Damascus are not clear-cut.

Although Assad failed to send condolences over Rabin’s slaying, the state- controlled Syrian media have gone out of their way in recent days to praise Peres, citing what they called his sincere determination to bring comprehensive peace to the region.

Moreover, a Syrian diplomat indicated to an Israeli colleague last weekend that Damascus does not necessarily rule out a meeting between Peres and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa at an economic conference scheduled to take place next week in Barcelona, Spain.

If the meeting does take place, it would be the first face-to-face discussions on the ministerial level between Israel and Syria.

In an additional hopeful sign, Sharaa sounded a note of optimism in an interview published in a Beirut-based newspaper this week, saying that he thought that chances for peace with Israel were more likely with Peres serving as prime minister.

Prompting further speculation that the Israeli-Syrian track might be restarted, American diplomatic officials were quoted this week as saying that Ross would return to the region next week.

Peres, however, sounded a cautions note, telling reporters Monday that it was still unclear what kind of progress could be made on the Syrian track.

But people who know Peres well say he will strive to bring the Syrians into the circle of peace, thereby forging normalized relations with all Israel’s immediate Arab neighbors, and in the process securing his own place in the pantheon of peacemakers.

They say that if the opportunity presented itself this year, Peres would seize it – because he believes that, in the final analysis, a full peace treaty with Syria, even at the cost of a full Golan withdrawal, would win widespread approval from the Israeli people.

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