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Now it's Assad's turn.

The Arab-Israeli peace talks laboriously resumed for the tenth time last month in Washington. After the disappointment of the previous conference in April and May (which had been billed as crucial), it is imperative for Syria's President Hafez Assad to take the lead. Not surprisingly, the return of the occupied Golan Heights has been pushed forward as the opportunity for a long-awaited breakthrough.

IT IS SAID THERE can be no Arab-Israeli war without Egypt and no Arab-Israeli peace without Syria. And since Syria is now the mandatory power in Lebanon, there can be no Lebanese-Israeli peace without Syria. This was amply demonstrated in 1984 when Beirut revoked a peace treaty signed with Israel in 1983 because of the treaty's rejection by both Damascus and a majority of Lebanese.

In preparation for the tenth round of bilateral peace talks in Washington, both Arab and outside parties visited Damascus to confer with the Syrians, who remain committed to the negotiations in spite of the lack of progress during the first nine rounds. After 19 months the talks remained deadlocked because the two sides have not agreed on the price Israel must pay for peace with the Arabs. Israel's prime minister, Yitzak Rabin, stated his position once again on a visit to the northern border as the Washington talks resumed. "We'll make an effort not to pay this time the price we paid for peace with Egypt |in 1979~," he declared. At the time, Israel agreed to give up the whole of occupied Sinai to Egypt in return for the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

However, the position of all the Arab parties at the current peace talks is that the final objective is a "comprehensive settlement" based, for all intent and purpose, on "total Israeli withdrawal on all fronts". Israel may find itself obliged to bend. Its chief negotiator with Syria, Itamar Rabinovich, admitted with some surprise that Syria's concept of peace seemed more far-reaching than the Israeli government had appreciated. At the same time, the Israeli finance minister, Avraham Shochat, warned businessmen planning to pour money into the Golan Heights that investment was "inadvisable" in the long term.

The Arabs characterised the ninth round of talks held at the end of April and early May as the last chance for the peace process to achieve some results. The round began well, with the Israelis permitting the return home of 30 veteran Palestinian deportees and both sides approaching the talks with a new seriousness of purpose, addressing substantive issues rather than arguing about procedural issues which dominated the previous eight rounds.

In the event, however, the ninth round showed only that discussion on substance could achieve no more progress than talks on matters of procedure. Furthermore, the Americans, who went into this round (the first under the Clinton presidency) as a full partner, did little or nothing to bridge the wide gap between the sides, permitting the talks to end in deadlock.

Syria's President Hafez Assad has been placed in a difficult position, politically and diplomatically. He was personally responsible for persuading the Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians to return to the talks, suspended in December after Israel deported 413 Palestinians from the territories. Assad persuaded the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, to drop the repatriation of the deportees as a pre-condition for resuming the talks, on both bilateral and multilateral levels. In turn, Arafat compelled the Palestinian negotiating team, made up of residents of the territories, to return to Washington for the ninth round, in the expectation that there would be a breakthrough. The breakthrough did not come.

For the deadlock to be broken on the Syrian track, Israel must commit itself to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Then, says a Syrian spokesman, "we will do two things: attend the multilateral talks |which Syria has boycotted, so far~ and set up working groups to discuss all relevant issues."

One such issue would be the nature of the peace to be established between Syria and Israel. Israel has said it would not make a commitment on the extent of its withdrawal from the Golan until Syria defined the sort of peace it was prepared to conclude with the Jewish state. Although Assad has said Syria would give "full peace for full withdrawal", it is doubtful if the settlement he envisages would mean the open borders and diplomatic and trade relations demanded by Israel.

For Damascus, "full peace", at present, means an end to belligerency, a formal treaty and security arrangements. It is far too early for the Syrian people to accept the notion of normalisation. Assad has suggested that any Syrian-Israeli settlement should be implemented step by step, so that the Syrian people could become used to the process of making peace with Israel.

The Syrians insist that an Arab-Israeli peace settlement should be full and comprehensive. But, sly as ever, Assad's position is that individual parties can reach bilateral accords without these becoming separate deals, like that between Israel and Egypt.

The habitual preparatory talks in Damascus among the Arab parties before the Washington negotiations resumed were designed to reassure each participant that no-one is contemplating a unilateral agreement with Israel. The ritual reiteration of commitment to a comprehensive settlement is a vital factor in getting all the Arab delegations to attend each round of negotiations.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the latest round of talks which began in mid-June will focus on the question of the Golan Heights. If Syria can reach even a tentative understanding with the Israelis, it will reinforce its position as the key Arab player in the talks. The Clinton administration seems to appreciate the importance of this. As the negotiations began, it indicated for the first time that the United States might be willing to guarantee security arrangements for a Golan deal.

The Syrian spokesman said that during the recent visit of Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, to Damascus, it was agreed that an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon would not be acceptable unless this was accompanied by an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. The hurried consultation followed reports from Washington that Israel had offered, in talks with the Lebanese team, to pull out of southern Lebanon. These reports proved false when it was revealed that Israel had suggested the creation of joint security committees to police the Israeli-Lebanese border before an Israeli withdrawal from its occupation zone north of the frontier.

Amin Hafez, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Lebanese parliament, says Israel did not "take seriously" UN Security Council resolutions 425 and 426, adopted in 1978, which called on Israel to withdraw from Lebanese territory and to permit the UN Interim Force in Lebanon to help the Lebanese re-establish their sovereignty in the south of the country. "The Israelis want to discuss security committees, normalisation of relations, a peace treaty, everything except withdrawal."

Withdrawal is not yet on the agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli track. It will only be discussed three years after Palestinian autonomy is established in the West Bank and Gaza. So far, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have not been able to agree on arrangements for Palestinian self-rule, on the shape of a representative body, its powers and jurisdiction or on the linkage of the autonomy regime with the final disposition of the Occupied Territories (The Middle East, June 1993).

Progress on the Palestinian track has been repeatedly disrupted by Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories, such as the continuation of Jewish colonisation, the deportation of the 413 Palestinians from the territories in December and, most recently, the imposition of a blockade on the territories, denying Palestinians access to East Jerusalem, their political and cultural capital, and to their jobs in Israel. Instead of working towards agreement on issues related to autonomy, Palestinian negotiators have been employed in wrenching concessions from the Israelis on these issues.

The two sides are in deadlock because neither the Arabs nor the Israelis can afford to pull out. The Arabs have no alternative but to talk peace because they cannot make war without Egyptian muscle and Soviet arms and because the status quo in which Israel is settling and absorbing the territories captured in 1967 is intolerable.

Israel must also stick with the peace process because since it began, Israel has gained international respectability through new ties with such countries as India, China, and Nigeria and secured funds needed to absorb incoming Soviet immigrants.

For the peace process to proceed, the United States, which has so far failed to become fully involved, as President Carter did in 1978 and 1979 in the Israeli-Egyptian talks, must turn itself into an active partner and act even-handedly to produce a just, enduring, comprehensive peace.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Syrian President Hafez Assad
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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