News Analysis: After Renewed Talks with Syria, Israelis Hope for Treaty This Year
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News Analysis: After Renewed Talks with Syria, Israelis Hope for Treaty This Year

The mood here has grown somewhat sober, as people begin to realize that despite the markedly improved atmosphere in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, long and arduous talks lie ahead.

A peace treaty, more likely now than ever, is not around the corner, however.

Adding to the sense of sobriety were some 16 Katyusha rockets that slammed into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona late last Friday night and Saturday morning, causing extensive property damage, but no casualties.

The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, which took responsibility for the rocket attack, had plainly not given up the hope of disrupting the negotiations by taking innocent Israeli lives.

This mood of sober realism has also rekindled speculation surrounding Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ election plans.

Thoughts and theories about early elections are buzzing in the air once more as pundits calculate the relationship between the state of the talks at the Wye Plantation is eastern Maryland and the state of public opinion back home.

The first to lower the level of breathless expectation was Uri Savir, the director general of the Foreign Ministry who is jointly heading the Israeli team with Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich.

In remarks to reporters after three days of talks last week, Savir said the “pre-negotiating phase” was still under way.

The Syrian side, he said, understood far better now the Israeli view of the nature of the peace relationship.

But that did not mean that there had been any substantive meeting of the minds on this issue, he said, adding that he envisaged many months of negotiations ahead.

Back home in Jerusalem, Yossi Beilin, who is a minister without portfolio and Peres’ closest aide on the peace process, told Israel Television’s Arab- language service that the treaty with Syria would likely take a year to hammer out.

Diplomatic sources said the first round at Wye proceeded on the “hypothetical” assumption that Israel would withdraw from the entire Golan Heights.

A second three-day session was scheduled to begin midweek, and is expected to be followed by a round of regional shuttle diplomacy later in the month by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

After this, Israeli officials said, the picture will become clearer, with the Syrians perhaps, signaling a serious readiness to negotiate a detailed peace relationship resting on a broad spectrum of security provisions involving the two countries and international forces.

The Israeli team was reportedly buoyed by the Syrians’ readiness to countenance the idea of Israeli nationals traveling to – or at least through – their country after a peace deal is signed.

The Syrian side, led by Ambassador Walid Muallem, reportedly bridled at the thought of large-scale Israeli tourism to Syria itself.

The noted that Syria is not a country of mass tourism and suggested that waves of visiting Israelis could disturb the social equilibrium.

But they appeared to approve the principle of open borders, meaning that there could be some tourism and – no less important – the right of Israelis to drive through Syria to neighboring Turkey.

For ordinary Israelis, this right will be one of the touchstones of the entire peace process with Syria.

It will give them the ability, for the first time since the creation of the Jewish state, to travel completely by land to Europe.

But this benefit alone may not be enough to melt the very considerable opposition among Israelis to a total withdrawal from the strategic Golan.

Some political commentators say Syrian President Hafez Assad will ultimately have to produce a Sadatlike piece of drama if he intends to procure for himself what the late Egyptian leader obtained for his country: Israel’s withdrawal from all the territory taken in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Americans, more active than ever before in their role as mediator, will be required under this scenario to persuade the dour Syrian dictator that nothing less than a trip to Jerusalem will do.

Meanwhile, the new flurry of violence across the Lebanese border raises the old question of whether this is Syria’s way of jacking up the pressures at the negotiating table.

Christopher wasted little time pondering the point: He got Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa out of bed in the early hours of Saturday morning for an urgent phone conversation about the Katyusha assaults.

One suspicion troubling officials both in Jerusalem and in Washington is that the Syrians – if indeed they are encouraging or turning a blind eye to Hezbollah actions – may believe that the rocket attacks will spur the Israeli public to support the peace accord.

After all, as Israeli leaders themselves often tell their own people, a treaty with Syria would include Syrian-protected Lebanon, in a new era of lasting tranquility.

The Syrians, as both Israel and the United States maintain, can rein in Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon just as, for 22 years, they have not permitted any terrorist activity across their border with Israel.

This ostensibly logical thinking, could backfire.

Israeli opinion could turn tough – especially if there is loss of life from the Katyusha attacks, a situation that could have occurred last weekend in Kiryat Shmona.

On the political front, Beilin’s one-year prognostication would have the deal clinched just as the Israeli people vote in the national elections, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 31.

This would be an ideally convenient way for putting the treaty to the test of the ballot box, as Yitzhak Rabin always promised to do.

But such fine timing is equally likely to backfire, leaving Peres and his Labor Party facing the electorate while still in the throes of tough bargaining with the Syrians.

Rather than chance that, Peres may call for early elections before the summer holiday.

Speaking to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz over the weekend, the prime minister insisted that he was not thinking of early elections – but carefully added “at the moment” as an escape clause.

He added that if the government’s majority in the Knesset looked shaky – two members of Labor have already broken ranks with their party over the Golan issue – he would have no hesitation about calling an early election.

On the other hand, a treaty – preferably with some fanfare from Assad and a lavish, regional signing ceremony – could presumably swing public opinion strongly behind the Peres government.

Most likely, Peres will plan his domestic strategy in tandem with his negotiating strategy with Syria, once Christopher has made his planned trip to the region and the prospects of a relatively quick deal are clearer.

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