Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
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Moving to the endgame

By Graham Usher

At a conference earlier this month at Birzeit University, the British writer -- and occasional diplomatic mediator -- Patrick Seale, likened Israel and Syria to "two Queens" battling over the "lesser pieces" of Lebanon and Palestine on the chessboard of the Middle East. Five days later, one of the most significant moves in this great game occurred when President Bill Clinton announced that the two sides had agreed to resume negotiations from "the point that they have stopped".

The breakthrough was the fruit of months of concerted and largely secret American diplomacy. So secret in fact, that Clinton's announcement took much of Israel's political establishment and media unawares. Once the dust settled, however, there was a quiet consensus among Israeli analysts as to the substance of the American formula that had brought Israel and Syria back to the table after a hiatus of nearly four years.

According to reports in Israel's leading Yediot Aharonot and Maariv newspapers, Israel has agreed "with minor border changes" to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of 4 June 1967. In return, they judge that Syria has quietly agreed to certain of Israel's "security demands", including some form of Israeli presence at an "international" or "American" Early Warning Station on Mount Hermon.

Writing in Maariv on 9 December, Israeli analyst Ben Caspit says it was only after President Hafez Al-Assad had exhibited flexibility on this last demand that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak indicated that he too would be flexible on the "depth" of Israel's withdrawal.

Without clarification on the "territorial matter", it is inconceivable that Assad would have agreed to resume negotiations or authorised so senior a political figure as Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa to meet with Barak in Washington on Wednesday, say Israeli sources. This too was the view of Palestinian Member of Knesset, Azmi Bishara, who met with Al-Sharaa on 9 December.

"The Syrians told me that as far as they were concerned the issue of the withdrawal from the Golan Heights was a done deal and would not be part of the negotiations because they had American guarantees that Israel would withdraw to 4 June 1967 borders," Bishara told Yediot from Damascus on 11 December. The only issues left for negotiation, he said, were to do with water and "the content of the peace".

This was also the reading of Israel's opposition parties, led by Ariel Sharon's Likud. He accused Barak of "capitulating" to American and Syrian pressure and, in implicitly accepting a "full" withdrawal from the Golan Heights, "undermining the foundations of Zionism". Sharon also moved quickly to appeal to the National Religious Party and the Russian immigrant Yisrael Ba'aliya party. Both are members of Barak's coalition who are opposed to any withdrawal from the Golan Heights that would involve the removal of the 18,000 Jewish settlers that reside there.

Yet, even with the NRP and the Russians, Sharon's "national camp" is unlikely to be strong enough to defeat Barak in the Knesset. Should the resumed negotiations lead to a peace agreement "within a few months" (as Al-Shara predicted on 12 December), Barak can count on support not only from his Labour party and the Meretz faction, but also in all probability from the 17 MK strong Sepahardi Orthodox Shas movement.

Barak may have a closer shave in the referendum he has promised on any peace treaties with Syria and Lebanon. Polls consistently show that around 50 per cent of Israelis are against any peace with Syria predicated on a full withdrawal from the Golan Height. And this could grow should the Golan settlers mount an emotive campaign. Yet even here -- says Israeli analyst, Moshe Maoz -- Barak can win over the Israeli public if he appeals to their minds rather than their hearts.

"My hope is grounded on precedence," says Maoz. "Most Israelis were against giving back the Sinai. And most were against recognising the PLO. If Barak presents a package to the electorate based on Israel's security needs and the promise of a comprehensive end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, I think he can win."

Maoz also points out that Barak's strongest card is that all Israelis are aware that giving back the Golan is the price for ending the war in south Lebanon. This is why both Israel and the US are expected to press Syria to use its influence to ensure that "quiet" prevails in south Lebanon.

As Ariel Sharon has ruefully reminded everyone, one condition Barak and the Americans have not made for a peace deal with Syria is any linkage between Israel's withdrawals from the Golan and south Lebanon and the removal of the 30,000 or so Syrian troops presently in Lebanon. Maoz explains the logic of this non-demand and also the price Israel expects from it.

"It's the Finland scenario," says Maoz. "Assad has long wanted an Israeli and American acknowledgement of Syria's strategic interest in Lebanon. And I think Israel should acknowledge this and accept that Syria is the only power that can hold Lebanon together. The model should be that Lebanon will be to Syria what the Palestinian state will be to Israel."

"Lesser pieces", in other words, on the Middle East chessboard.

(see Region)

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