News Analysis: Peres Confers New Role on Syria As Key to Comprehensive Peace

In a deliberate departure from long-held positions, Israel is conferring on Syria a new strategic and regional significance that the secularist state never has had.

Not everyone, however, agrees that this approach will work to create the comprehensive peace Israel is seeking.

Syria’s new status comes amid a marked change of atmosphere between the two countries since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and Shimon Peres’ accession to the prime ministership.

American officials traveling last week in the region with Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the tone in Damascus was different from anything they had heard before.

A declaration by Syria’s foreign minister this week that his country wants to see an end to the violence between Israeli troops and Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon further highlights the changing nature of Israeli-Syrian relations as the two countries prepare for the resumption of their long-stalled peace negotiations.

Those talks, announced during Christopher’s visit last week, are scheduled to reopen Dec. 27 at an as-of-yet undisclosed location near Washington.

Coming after a meeting with Lebanese ministers Tuesday in Beirut, Farouk al+Sharaa’s remarks appeared to confirm Peres’ own reported assurance to a Knesset committee Monday that the Americans had brokered an “understanding” between Jerusalem and Damascus on Lebanon.

The understanding apparently said the Syrians would try to ensure that the southern Lebanon border region stay quiet as the renewed talks proceed.

Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon has seen escalating violence in recent week as members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah have intensified their attacks on Israeli targets.

Israeli officials have often criticized Syria for turning a blind eye and even assisting the militants.

Now, with a new atmosphere emerging, officials in Jerusalem are questioning whether there also will be a new openness and flexibility in the substance of the negotiations with Syria.

Syrian President Hafez Assad abruptly cut off the talks during the summer amid a dispute over future security arrangements on the Golan Heights.

In addition, Assad has insisted that Israel declare its willingness to fully withdraw from the strategic plateau before Syria declares its intentions about peace.

In the Middle East, where semantics are as important as substance and atmospherics, there has already been a major change in the semantics of Israeli-Syrian peacemaking.

The key codeword is “comprehensive peace.” The phrase has been around for almost as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict itself.

However, it always was expressed as an Arab demand. It meant that the Palestinians must achieve a satisfactory form of self-determination before the neighboring Arab states buried their animosity toward Israel.

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, negotiating what was in effect a separate peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978, took care to conclude a “framework agreement” for Palestinian self-rule too, insisting that he had thereby fulfilled the requirement of comprehensiveness.

Most of the Arab world rejected that logic at the time, especially when subsequent talks between Israel and Egypt on Palestinian self-rule quickly ran into quicksand.

However, since the breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993, and the subsequent Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, comprehensive peace has come to mean the need for Syria and its dependent, Lebanon, to reach peace with Israel as well.

Without that, Arab officials insisted, the peace agreements already concluded would remain very fragile. With it, they said, a “ring of peace” would be closed, encompassing Israel and its immediate neighbors, the so-called confrontation states of yesteryear.

During the on-again, off-again Israeli-Syrian direct negotiations since the 1991 Madrid Conference, which launched the Middle Easter peace process, Syria’s territorial demand for the Golan Heights remained unwavering.

Its readiness to enter into a full peace relationship with Israel remained doubtful. Rabin’s readiness to do the deal, in the face of massive opposition at home, remained uncertain.

Now, along with injecting a sudden urgency into the Israeli-Syrian track, Peres has introduced a new definition of “comprehensive peace.”

Meeting with President Clinton last week in Washington, Peres suggested that an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would – indeed, from Israel’s standpoint, must – involve a dozen or more other Arab states.

All their leaders, in Peres’ bold scenario, would attend the Israeli-Syrian signing ceremony and would sign their own bilateral peace accords with Israel, either simultaneously or shortly thereafter.

Only the “bully boys” of the Muslim world, as Peres calls them – Iran, Iraq, Libya and the Sudan – would be left out, with the United States, Israel, Turkey and the Arab moderates creating a strategic alliance against their regimes.

Under such a scenario, Israel would be prepared to relinquish the Golan. Peres has not yet stated this outright, but it is his clear intention.

In return, Israel would receive iron-clad security arrangements supervised by the United States, diplomatic ties between Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut and open channels for trade and tourism.

It would also realize a truly comprehensive settlement between the Jewish state and the wider Arab and Muslim world.

Peres and his top aides insist that the new approach is no mere ploy designed to help sell the land-for-peace accord to the Israeli public, much of which is skeptical about withdrawing from the Golan.

Rather, they we it as a piece of Peres’ new Middle East strategy that envisages a radical new reality throughout the region, with economic and human interests superseding old conflicts as the driving motive of regional politics.

However, not all observers here are convinced that this new approach is firmly grounded in the realities of the Arab world.

Moreover, it seems to some critics to be lacking in tactical sagacity, because it bestows on Syria unprecedented regional importance and thereby could encourage Syria to jack up its demands in its negotiations with Israel.

Why would the fiercely proud Persian Gulf states or the North African countries sign on to peace with Israel just because Syria was doing so, the critics ask.

If Syria was perceived two decades ago as a powerful force for subversion among the more conservative Arab countries, its potential for such mischief is widely believed to have declined over recent years.

Syria’s Ba’athist-led secularist ethos, furthermore, is out of step with the religious spirit that pervades much of the Arab world, rendering it still less of a force to be reckoned with.

As a recent and telling example of Syria’s waning influence, these critics point out that Syria’s neighbor Jordan, traditionally apprehensive of Damascus, threw trepidation to the wind last year by making peace with Israel without even informing – let along consulting – Assad.

Nor did Amman quake when the Syrian leader expressed his ire.

In terms of Peres’ new vision for the region, the critics further argue, economically backward Syria hardly a regional frontrunner and its dictatorial regime is hardly a beacon of regional enlightenment.

At the same time, Israel’s legitimation of Syria’s permanent occupation of Lebanon – implicit in the comprehensive peace scenario – would not necessarily win plaudits from Arab moderates or from Israel’s friends in the West.

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