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Analysis: Israel Launches Trial Balloon to Gauge Syrian Moderation

July 29, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Israel launched a small but significant trial balloon this week, by issuing a pointedly favorable comment on the deliberations of Arab foreign ministers in Damascus last weekend.

For the first time, said Israeli high-level “political circles” in remarks leaked to the press, this important Arab forum had actually spelled out the words “peace agreements” as the goal of the peace process with Israel.

The Arab statesmen met in the Syrian capital in an effort to coordinate positions before the reopening of the Middle East peace talks, now scheduled for Washington in late August.

The choice of Damascus as venue was as important as the issues discussed, and the Israeli “political circles” played this up. “Until now,” they said, “the Arabs have refrained from committing themselves to the attainment of peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors.”

They also noted that the Arab ministers’ statement contained many terms that were unacceptable to Israel. But — and this was the kicker to the Israeli comment — there was reason to hope “that this Arab readiness for peace agreements will find tangible manifestation in the forthcoming talks,” the Israelis said.

The response was clearly approved at the highest levels of the new Israeli government. It represented, according to a well-placed source, part of a new approach: “Not to paint everything automatically black, but to give the other side some credit and see if that is justified.”

The question of whether Syria is prepared for full peace with Israel has dogged the bilateral talks between the two countries ever since the negotiations began, after the Madrid Conference last October.

Each time the two teams met, the Syrians demanded a commitment by Israel to territorial withdrawal, and the Israelis demanded a prior commitment from Syria to full peace. The talks hardly progressed farther than that.


It is too early to tell whether the new Israeli trial balloon has removed this roadblock, enabling negotiators to get down to nuts and bolts when they reconvene.

The answer presumably depends on Syrian wisdom and moderation in recognizing the purpose of the Israeli move. The Syrians must not backslide from the ministers’ statement of last weekend as publicly interpreted by Israel.

The Israel-Syria question has taken on unexpectedly urgent significance in the wake of the diplomacy following Yitzhak Rabin’s victory.

Both U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spent a large part of their discussions with Rabin last week stressing to him that his “Palestiniansfirst” thesis might not hold water. To leave the Syrians out in the cold is to court the risk of their thwarting progress with the Palestinians too, Rabin was told.

Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have plainly absorbed the message. Highly placed sources here speak of a “reassessment” currently in progress in the policy-making echelon in Jerusalem with regard to the priority of the Syrian negotiations in the overall peace equation.

Prime Minister Rabin toured southern Lebanon on Tuesday and noted, not for the first time, that the Syrians have it in their power to throttle Shi’ite anti-Christian terrorism in that region.

Rabin also emphasized that Israel had “learned the lessons of its limitations” and would not be seeking to interfere in forthcoming Lebanese elections.

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