Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak is quashing notions that any breakthrough is near in the peace talks with Syria.
The latest round of talks between Israel and Syria is going slowly but evinces “moderate and measured advancement” at every meeting, said Barak at a briefing last Friday for members of the Jewish media.
Private peace talks resumed Jan. 24 at Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland and are a prelude to a regional shuttle mission by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher slated for early next month.
Barak also said Israel would be “ready for full withdrawal from South Lebanon” if Lebanon suppresses terrorist activity by the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah.
The foreign minister was looking ahead to direct negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, which are not anticipated until after a deal is reached with Syria.
He said Israeli withdrawal would be continent on the Lebanese government’s treating the South Lebanon Army “the same as other militias” that have been disarmed in recent years. Soldiers should be allowed to join the defense forces of the Lebanese army or go home, he said.
The South Lebanon Army operates in the area of southern Lebanon where the Israel Defense Force maintains a “security zone.”
Meanwhile, Barak said Syrian President Hafez Assad “clearly wants peace with the [United States] and has decided he can’t achieve it without peace with Israel.” But Assad “tries to do it his way, not Israel’s way,” Barak added.
It will be clear in the coming weeks whether the two ways are “bridgeable,” said Barak, who was on his first visit to the United States as foreign minister, a position he assumed after Prime Minister Shimon Peres formed a new government after the November assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Israel’s “way,” he said, is to emphasize early normalization; a peace that is comprehensive; and terrorism, water and security arrangements that reduce the incentive for both sides to launch a full-scale attack and make “a surprise attack against Israel practically impossible.”
Only when these matters are addressed will Israel know “the depth of peace” Syria is seeking and the extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights that is “commensurate” with that, Barak said.
For years, negotiations have gotten stuck on Syria’s insistence that Israel spell out in advance its commitment to full withdrawal.
Barak said the current talks, which he termed “exploratory,” reflected an effort to bypass this obstacle.
But the foreign minister added, “We’re not going to have peace at any price. We’re not going to have peace before a certain date.”
“We want peace,” he said, “but only if it can be achieved without violating our security and vital interests.”
Prime Minister Shimon Peres is known to view an agreement with Syria as an asset at the ballot box in national elections that will take place later this year.
Recently, however, he has expressed a new caution about the complexity of military issues under discussion.
In recent weeks, Peres has said it would be impossible to reach an agreement before the elections unless the pace of the talks was accelerated.
On the same day of the Barak meeting, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns cautioned against being too optimistic.
“We’re just going to have to keep our nose to the grindstone,” he said. “We’re going to have to work very hard and not build our expectations up too high” that the talks at the Wye Plantation “are going to produce immediately a peace agreement,” he said.
“None of us should be under the misapprehension that somehow peace is just around the corner,” Burns said.
Meanwhile, Barak played down the importance of peacekeeping troops on the Golan.
“I don’t think it is a crucial element” of any agreement, he said.
Such troops or “monitors” would not necessarily have to be Americans, he also said.
The Clinton administration has offered to send troops to participate in an international force on the Golan to monitor the implementation of a peace treaty if both Israel and Syria make such a request.
Although Barak noted that the United States “enjoys the trust and respect of both sides” in a way no other nation does, he also said, “If it’s sensitive for the American public, it can be put aside.”
Turning to be Palestinian, Barak said Israel is committed to living up to the peace agreement and expected Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to live up it as well.
He said Israel expects an effective fight against terrorism and the cancellation of the parts of the Palestinian covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.
“We don’t describe it as a precondition, but we made it quite clear” to Arafat that Israel “cannot see ourselves entering” the permanent-status talks with these issues unresolved, he said.
The permanent-status talks are set to begin in May.
The covenant abrogation has become the “litmus test” for Israelis on Palestinian “seriousness” toward the peace process, he said.
On terrorism, however, “we have no illusions,” Barak said. “We know he can’t deliver a 100 percent, foolproof” result, he said, adding, “We expect an effective, credible, aggressive, best effort,” especially against the fundamentalist groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
The foreign minister said the fight against terrorism serves Arafat, too.
Barak said Israel was entering an historic “crossroads” from a position of economic strength and military superiority.
In referring to the gap in living standards between Israel and its neighbors, he said, “We are living in a villa amidst the jungle” where “the laws of the jungle prevail.’
“The real reason the Arabs came to the negotiating table is not an eruption of latent Zionism,” Barak said. “It’s a result of accepting the reality principle,” the principle “that we can’t be eliminated by the uses of force.”
He added that “it is this sense of reality that will keep them complying” with the agreements with Israel.