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Middle East: Israel, Syria Restart Talks With Strong Positions

U.S. President Bill Clinton's announcement yesterday that Israel and Syria will renew peace talks revives negotiations which have been frozen almost four years. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on what brought the two sides back to the bargaining table.

Prague, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The restart of Syrian-Israeli peace talks is as much a victory for the countries' military strategists as it is for diplomacy.

For years, Damascus has been exerting strong military pressure on Israel by supporting Lebanese Shiite and Palestinian militias which launch almost daily attacks on Israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon. The war of attrition has caused enough casualties among Israeli soldiers to fuel a strong popular movement in Israel to finally bring the soldiers home.

Syria, the undisputed power-broker in Lebanon, has blocked any separate peace between Israel and Beirut, making it essential to come through Damascus if Israel wants any peace guarantees on its Lebanese border. Syria's price for peace has never changed and that is the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Damascus in the 1967 war.

Analysts say that the renewal next week in Washington of high-level peace negotiations will be seen as an indication in Damascus that its long strategy in southern Lebanon was successful.

Adrian Sindall was British ambassador to Damascus until three years ago. He tells RFE/RL by telephone that once Syria decided it was ready to negotiate a peace, south Lebanon became its lever to persuade Israel it must engage seriously with Damascus.

"On the tactical level, I think the Syrians have quite clearly realized as part of the long-standing rivalry between Syria and Israel over Lebanon that a pressure point was to tackle this continuing occupation of south Lebanon and to harass the Israeli forces there. That, of course, was a homegrown situation in that the [Lebanese Shiite] Hezbollah is essentially a Lebanese constituted national liberation organization but the influence that the Syrians and Iranians had gave it an extra dimension and of course the pressure has come on."

But if Syria believes it pushed Israel militarily to the negotiating table, there are signs that Israel has also done the same to Damascus. After years of holding on in southern Lebanon, Israel this year dramatically changed direction with its new government announcing it would unilaterally pull its forces out with or without a peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who campaigned on that promise, set the withdrawal date for July next year.

The announcement moved the urgency to negotiate to Damascus by clearly implying that if Syria did not start talking before the pullback, its chances of recovering the Golan Heights afterward would be far slimmer. Analysts say that even as Barak clearly favors a peace deal, many in Israel believe it is far from indispensable.

Patrick Clawson, a regional expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., says that if Israel had to pull back from south Lebanon without a deal with Damascus, it would bank on its airpower to provide its own security guarantees.

"There is a widespread perception in Israel that it is going to be possible for the Israelis to deter attacks across the Lebanese-Israeli border through the use of air power without having to have a presence on the ground. Plus there is a sense that if Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon that then Israel will have occupied the moral high ground and that it would be extraordinarily difficult for the international community to criticize Israel in the event that there were attacks across the international boundary on Israel."

Analysts say that because both sides now believe they are coming to the table from a position of strength, the negotiations will be tough and protracted. Sindall says that means that for the two sides to make peace they must resolve issues ranging from land return and security guarantees to sharing water. Ambassador Sindall:

"Negotiations will be tough because the Israelis and the Syrians are both tough negotiators. They want the details set out, they are not prepared to make assertions of principle hoping the [details] will fall into place later. Water alone is a very complicated and difficult issue, security arrangements which give both Israeli and Syrian security a sense of reassurance but don't impinge on sovereignty ... so, of course the negotiations will be tough but I think that both sides have a pressing need for peace."

The last round of talks broke off in early 1996 amid sharp disputes over how much of the Golan Heights would be returned, Israeli demands to have security monitoring stations in returned territory and rights to water from the strategic plateau.

As each side yesterday welcomed a renewal of talks, each indicated it has not changed its negotiating position much over the last years.

Syria maintains its demand that discussions resume based on what it says is a previous Israeli promise to return all of the Golan Heights, which is now home to 17,000 Israeli settlers. But Israeli officials say no such commitment was ever made.

The talks will be the highest-level ever held between the two countries. Announcing the resumption of talks, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Barak will meet in Washington with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara. That will provide the political impetus for negotiating teams to follow up in a second round of intensive negotiations as yet unscheduled for somewhere in the Middle East.

Announcing the talks, Clinton said nobody should be under any illusions that they will be easy.

"There can be no illusion here. On all tracks the road ahead will be arduous, the task of negotiating agreements will be difficult. Success is not inevitable. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese will have to confront fateful questions. They face hard choices. They will have to stand firmly against all those who seek to derail the peace. And sadly, there are still too many of them."

The resumption of the peace process comes after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met early this week with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus and Barak in Jerusalem. She told reporters yesterday that the talks will cover four subjects: Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, the content and character of the peace, security arrangements, and a timetable.