Bargaining for Golan

September 12, 1992

Syria upholds the Arab rejectionist front against Israel. If Syria would make peace with Israel, Lebanon would and Jordan and the stateless Palestinians could. If Syria is willing -- a big if -- the basis of accommodation is a land-for-peace swap of the Golan Heights. Syrian national pride and security rests on retrieving this indisputably Syrian territory that reaches to 35 miles of Damascus.

So the shock and anger of Israeli settlers who have made the Golan bloom as it never did under Syrian rule is reassuring. Sun correspondent Doug Struck's report from the Heights shows that these people, who have every personal reason to oppose the swap, take Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's peace initiative seriously.

Mr. Rabin spoke of "a readiness for some sort of territorial compromise" on Israeli radio. It is a break from predecessor Likud governments, which effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. But every Israeli knows there is no peace with Syria without returning all or most of the land that Israel seized in 1967. Israeli-Syrian peace talks resume in Washington Monday with reports of progress toward negotiating the principles of a peaceful settlement. It could be about nothing else.

Mr. Rabin went further, on Israeli radio, to make clear what Israel expects in return: True peace, diplomatic recognition, open borders, everything meant by "normalization." The Syrian dictator, Hafez el Assad, has hinted at peace without saying what it means. He has shown a readiness for phases of withdrawal and security precautions, but not true peace. Yet he, too, knows what a settlement requires. Neither side is willing to concede before the other; this is, after all, the Middle East.

Israel seized the Golan Heights with justification in 1967 after the Heights were used for continual shelling of Israel. Israel's real interest is security, just as Syria's is sovereignty. The people (excluding soldiers) who actually lived there before 1967 were Druse tribesmen who want to live in peace in ancestral lands and who wear any citizenship, Syrian or Israeli, lightly. The Israelis who have devoted their lives to occupy the Heights and deny it to Syrian tanks are strongly tied to the land. Yet theirs is not a national interest, and the Israeli emotional tie is much less than the Biblical and pre-1948 links to the West Bank.

Without Soviet support, Syria has a harder time maintaining intransigence. Without Syrian endorsement, Palestinian rejectionists would find obstruction more difficult. None of this can come about without greater territorial sacrifice than Mr. Rabin implies and more unbreakable commitment to peace than Mr. Assad has given to anything. But it is an easier bargain to make than the one required between Israel and the Palestinians, and it would make that more realistically attainable.

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