It might be the season, but there is a distinct chill in the air in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. That quiet town a few hours from Washington is the site for the newly resumed peace talks between Israel and Syria. Unfortunately, the bucolic setting has not yet worked its magic on the negotiators. The decades of mistrust are taking a toll; no issue has proven too small to fight over. While both sides say they want peace, neither government is making the gestures that prove it.
That there are talks at all is a victory of sorts. Syria has been Israel’s most determined foe. It took six months of patient coaxing by the United States — which began in earnest with the election of Mr. Ehud Barak as Israel’s prime minister — to get Damascus to resume talks that had been stalled for three years. Yet when the two sides met at the White House late last year to announce that negotiations would begin again, there was none of the informality or good will that had marked similar breakthroughs in the past. Pointedly, there was no handshake between the two principles, Mr. Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara. The chill has not dissipated.
The lack of trust is striking. The Syrians demanded that a U.S. representative attend all sessions in Washington to ensure that there was an independent record of what was said. Reportedly, the first meetings in Shepherdstown have been chiefly concerned with trying to establish where the previous round of talks had broken off. Syria claims that Israel promised during the last round to negotiate the handover of the Golan Heights and wants to proceed from there. Israel says no such concession was made.
Attempts to break the ice have failed. Face-to-face meetings between Israelis and Syrians are rare. Most of the work is being done by U.S. officials meeting separately with each side. The two sides keep to themselves and no point has proven too trivial to contest. Even the seating of journalists has been disputed.
The chief sticking point is the Golan Heights. Syria wants an unequivocal Israeli commitment to relinquish all of the territory seized in the 1967 war before it will negotiate anything else. Israel, in turn, says it cannot agree to a complete return until Syria makes assurances of its peaceful intentions.
The unwillingness of either side to budge has forced U.S. President Bill Clinton to personally intervene four times during the first week of the talks. The deadlock was seemingly broken when agreement was reached to set up four technical groups to discuss borders, normalized relations, water rights and security arrangements, and have them meet simultaneously. Soon after, they broke down on the sequencing issue, however. Mr. Clinton returned once again to break the stalemate.
The question of trust is critical. Mr. Barak has promised to put any peace agreement with Syria to a public referendum, and Israel is divided over whether the country should give up the Golan Heights for a deal. A recent survey showed that 55 percent of respondents favor keeping the strategic heights even if it means forgoing a peace agreement.
Israel has many reasons to be attached to the Golan. Fundamentalists believe the land is promised to Israel in the Bible. Defense hawks worry that the territory is too important to Israel’s national security to abandon: Damascus can be seen from the Golan and any preparations for an attack can be anticipated. In addition, depending on how the borders are drawn, the possessor of the Golan could control much of the water in Israel. Finally, secular nationalists point out that 17,000 Israelis now live in the territory; in addition to the lost value of work they have done in the region, they must be resettled. This could cost anywhere from $10 billion to $25 billion, and Israel is ill-prepared to pay for it.
Syria has made it clear that it too expects financial assistance after a deal is signed. That poses a problem: The U.S., which has helped foot previous peace bills, cannot aid Syria since Damascus is listed as a state that supports terrorism.
Other nations will have to step in. Fortunately, last week Russia announced that multilateral talks on Middle East cooperation, suspended since February 1997, would resume next month. That development was made possible by the Shepherdstown talks as well as the announcement that negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on a final settlement would begin next month. Agreement with the PLO was prompted, in part, by the prospect of a settlement between Israel and Syria. Once again, the Middle East proves to be a tangled knot of relations. The remaining strands can be unraveled with patience and a commitment to success.
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