Where Israel and Syria stand

Leak: U.S. negotiating document shows surprising areas of agreement between two countries.

January 17, 2000

PUBLICATION of the U.S. paper summarizing Israeli-Syrian agreements and disagreements, first in an Arabic newspaper in London and then in an Israeli newspaper, brings one major surprise.

Everyone has seen the need for a trade-off in the Shepherdstown talks, which are scheduled to resume Wednesday, between Israel's demand for true peace and Syria's demand for all the Golan Heights.

The surprise is that Syria agreed flat-out to Israel's demands. This includes "free and unimpeded flow of people, goods and services between the two countries." No exceptions listed.

As a bargaining tactic, this has the effect of weakening Israel's leverage for exceptions to Syria's demands. Israel's reservations are both considerable and reasonable, when seen as opening bargaining positions.

Israel has agreed to withdraw armed forces, not settlers, from the Golan Heights. Syria agrees to a monitoring station on Mount Hermon staffed by U.S. and French forces, where Israel wants an Israeli component. There is agreement on a demilitarized zone, but plenty of disagreement about where it is to be.

Of course Israel is entitled to probe whether President Hafez el Assad's dictatorship would implement the normalization it so blithely concedes. Israel is right in wanting Lebanon brought into talks before the territorial issue is concluded. And Israel will not -- and should not -- concede away all its security precautions.

But the good news in the document is that the differences appear splittable, not principles more important than agreement.

The worst news is not security but water. The document says the parties recognize that resolution of all water issues is essential.

That is, the real sticking point about territory, the true threat to Israel's long-term security, is postponed. Control of precious water sources cannot be agreed in the time frame of this treaty.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak now must know that he can bring this negotiation to an agreement, even if Syria's ailing and reclusive dictator sends surrogates to do his talking.

What Mr. Barak does not know is whether the Israeli electorate will have sufficient faith in Syria's word to ratify the sacrifice of territory in the referendum that Mr. Barak has promised.

Barak the soldier sees the security issue clearly. Barak the politician should be cut some slack, as when he publicly demands a face-to-face meeting with President Assad before final agreement, a meeting that certainly can be arranged.

Insiders say that leaking the document for publication harmed the negotiation. Perhaps, but the document shows that the negotiation is pretty well on track.

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