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The key to enduring peace in the Middle East is an agreement between Syria and Israel. Syria has long been Israel’s most implacable foe. Its military power and its de facto control over Lebanon give Damascus the ability to scuttle any progress Tel Aviv makes with other negotiating partners. Syria does not have a veto, but if peace in the Middle East is to be real, it must be comprehensive. For the first time in years, that looks like a genuine possibility.

After two days of the highest-level meetings ever between the two countries, Israel and Syria last week agreed to commence another round of talks next year. The negotiations are scheduled to begin Jan. 3, at a location in the United States near Washington, so that U.S. President Bill Clinton will be able to attend as needed.

Last week’s breakthrough owes much to Mr. Clinton. Undeterred by nearly four years of silence, the president prodded the two sides to meet and then brokered the meetings. By all accounts the U.S. role was crucial. Syria insisted that the U.S. attend all sessions to make sure that there were no misunderstandings.

That kind of mistrust is the chief obstacle to peace. The pointed refusal of the two negotiators, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to shake hands was the most graphic illustration of the distance the two sides still have to travel. Mr. Charaa’s denunciation of Israel at the opening ceremonies — reportedly a violation of the agreed-to protocol — may have been useful. It certainly dispelled any illusions that peace would be easy to reach.

In announcing the resumption of the talks, Mr. Clinton said negotiations would use U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which stipulate Israel’s withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967, as a baseline. Syria demands a complete pullout as a precondition to any peace. That poses two strategic problems for Israel. The first is well-known: The Golan Heights offer a vantage point for any attack on Israel. They also give Israel warning of any attack. But the proliferation of ballistic missiles erodes the significance of that advantage.

The second point may be even more vital, however. A complete withdrawal would give Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, which supplies Israel with water. In the parched Middle East, no resource is more important.

Of course, a genuine normalization of relations between the two countries would take care of both issues. But peace does not just erupt. It must be carefully nurtured through confidence-building measures. As last week’s meeting painfully revealed, the two sides are starting from a very low base.

Fortunately, the leaders of the two countries appear ready to break the logjam. Syrian President Hafez el-Assad is reportedly ill and wants to make peace to solidify his legacy and provide a springboard for his son’s assumption of power. Mr. Barak won elections earlier this year by promising peace to a weary nation. He has already vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by July 2000. He needs Mr. Assad in his corner if he is to deliver.

Lebanon’s significance was highlighted in last week’s talks. Israel asked Syria to pledge that it would rein in the Islamic terrorists that operate from bases within that country. Instead, the Syrians reportedly agreed to control “enemies of peace” during the negotiations. As if to punctuate the point, there was fighting between the Islamic forces and Israel’s allies in Lebanon while the talks were being held in Washington.

Reaching an agreement will be difficult, but it is only a first step. Mr. Barak has promised to put any peace deal to the Israeli public for a vote. As his country’s most-decorated soldier, he has credibility when he assures it that national security will not be endangered. That may sway many voters — even some of the settlers are resigned to a withdrawal — but it will not change the thinking of Israeli fundamentalists who believe they have a biblical claim to all the occupied territories.

There is another factor in the peace calculations: the Palestinians. They fear that progress with Syria may come at their expense. A deal — even the prospect of one — with Damascus could strengthen Israel’s hand in final negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr. Clinton assured Palestinians that they will remain a focus of U.S. diplomacy, but insecurities still run high.

The lessons of the Middle East peace process offer some solace. A stable peace is only possible when all parties are involved. A partial peace is no solution. After many years, a real peace is in sight.

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