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Quiet in the North precedes Israel-Syria talks

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JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) — A significant relaxation of tension along the Israel-Lebanon border has become the backdrop to next week’s second round of peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Prospects for a final resolution to the Lebanon morass could be critical for Prime Minister Ehud Barak on two fronts — both as he seeks to strike a deal with Syria and as he seeks to convince the Israeli public that withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights is worth the price of peace.

Indeed, Barak will be heading to West Virginia, where talks with Syria are slated to resume Jan. 3, weakened by political fissures back home that could prove detrimental to his need for widespread public support.

On Monday, the pivotal Shas Party, with its 17 Knesset seats, announced that it was leaving the governing coalition, embittered over an ongoing dispute regarding state funding for its educational network.

Some sources inside Barak’s One Israel bloc were hopeful that this storm would blow over once the current tensions surrounding the annual budget debate have passed.

But ongoing coalition tensions could continue to present obstacles for Barak as he seeks public support for his peace policies.

Seen in this light, the developments along the northern border with Lebanon appear especially significant.

On Sunday, Israel unexpectedly released five long-term Lebanese prisoners, all men linked to the Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrillas. They were flown to Germany — which had acted as mediator in securing their release — and from there to Beirut.

International news agencies claimed the deal involved new information supplied, or to be supplied, by the Hezbollah concerning the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator downed over Lebanon in 1986 and subsequently held hostage in Lebanon and possibly in Iran. There has been no news of Arad for years.

Israeli sources were more circumspect in accounting for the decision to free the five.

But they, too, did not deny that the release could augur further tension-reducing steps between Israel and the Shi’ite fundamentalists and was made in the context of the resumed talks with Syria and the soon-to-be-resumed talks with Lebanon.

The prisoner release was the fourth in a series of recent developments that, taken together, could mean a major turning point in the sporadic, unrelenting war on Israel’s northern border.

• Hezbollah refrained from retaliating in early December after a school in the southern Lebanese village of Majdal Selim was hit by mortar shells fired by the Israeli-controlled South Lebanese Army. Several pupils were injured. Observers believed that the Syrians, in the interests of the resumed talks with Israel, had reined in any Hezbollah thought of replying with a round of Katyusha rockets on towns in northern Israel.

• Last week, Israel and the Hezbollah quietly proclaimed — and observed — a four-day cease-fire to enable the Hezbollah to search for and retrieve the remains of its men killed in the fighting over past months and years. This, too, was seen by observers as a significant gesture by Israel.

• Over the weekend, Barak indicated, through high-level officials, that he wants to bring Israeli troops home from southern Lebanon before Passover.

The prime minister’s commitment to withdraw, unilaterally if need be, from south Lebanon by the summer is thought to have spurred the regime in Damascus to agree to resume the long-stalled peace talks. Barak’s reported tightening of the timetable is seen as a reflection of his confidence that those talks can successfully produce at least the broad outlines of an agreement by the spring. That agreement, of course, would provide for peace not only between Israel and Syria, but also between Israel and Lebanon.

Barak, say observers, is determined to maintain the momentum of the negotiations, both on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks.

He and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, have pledged to conclude a “framework agreement” by mid-February. Barak met with Arafat in Ramallah last week to try to reassure him that the breakthrough on the Syrian track would not mean a slowing down of the pace of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Regarding Syria and Lebanon, Barak speaks of a “core agreement” that would precede a full-fledged peace treaty. He is said to be striving to attain this core accord — and submit it to the Israeli public in a referendum — in the early part of the new year.

To garner additional support, the agreement will have to make it clear that peace will mean full normalization of relations not only with Israel’s immediate neighbors to the north, but also with Arab states throughout the region.

The Clinton administration is said to have committed itself to ensuring that such key Middle Eastern players as Saudi Arabia and Algeria will bite the bullet and make their peace with the Jewish state simultaneously with Syria and Lebanon.

But even more persuasive for Israeli public opinion, it is thought, would be a palpable demonstration that the drawn-out and bloody embroilment in south Lebanon is finally coming to an end.

In this context, government sources have begun suggesting unofficially that a peace with Syria would translate into a reduction by at least six months of the three-year period of military service required of every male soldier, and of the two years for women.

Such persuasion could be critical. While Barak is exuding confidence that any referendum will result in a sweeping majority for peace, his present political situation seems to endanger that sanguine prognosis.

Even if Shas remains in the coalition, the cracks that have been opened up between the Sephardi party and its coalition partners — One Israel and especially the left-wing Meretz — will not easily or quickly heal.

And although Shas’ paramount spiritual figure, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has been a consistent supporter of “land-for peace,” many rank-and-file members of the fervently Orthodox party bridle at that doctrine. On Sunday, the aged Jerusalem kabbalist and Shas folk hero Rabbi Yitzhak Kedourie toured the Golan urging residents there not to leave for any price.

A smaller coalition partner, the National Religious Party, has already formally announced that it will secede the moment agreement is reached on a full withdrawal from the Golan. NRP voters would then, presumably, vote against Barak in the referendum.

Some say these political pressures will strengthen Barak’s hand in the fateful card game he must play with his negotiating partner, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

But that logic falters when it passes a point of diminishing returns. To win the referendum convincingly, Barak needs the support of Shas voters and their political leaders.

Recognizing the battles ahead, Barak recently convened a first meeting of his reconstituted election-strategy team, which performed so brilliantly for him in May 1999.

In addition to the Israeli advertising, public relations and polling experts, U.S. election consultants James Carville and Stanley Greenberg are also expected to join Barak’s effort to persuade a fractious and worried Israeli public to give up a valuable strategic asset in exchange for peace.

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