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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The heights of ambition

Israel and Syria tackle the Golan in a peace push

By Douglas Waller

Time magazine

As she walked into an ornate conference room in Hafez Assad's Damascus palace last week, Madeleine Albright stole a quick glance at the door to a nearby bathroom. The only excitement during her previous meeting with the Syrian President had been getting locked in that bathroom until a security agent pried open the door. She'd avoid the room this time, but Albright expected the same demands from Assad that had so far blocked talks with Israel on returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Twenty minutes into the meeting, however, the Secretary of State and her Middle East aide, Dennis Ross, looked at each other with "something's-changed-here" expressions on their faces. Assad now wanted to resume talks--minus preconditions Israel found unacceptable.

For the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian peace track, this counted as a major breakthrough and one that three men--Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton--were eager to exploit. The ailing Assad, 69, seems eager to seize this chance to get back the Golan Heights, which Israel appropriated in the 1967 Six-Day War. Barak came to power pledging to entice Syria back to the negotiating table. And Clinton, who quickly arranged for Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara to start the talks in Washington this week, was hungry for a foreign policy triumph after the disastrous World Trade Organization conference in Seattle two weeks ago.

For the past three months, Washington--mostly in the persons of Ross and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger--has been acting as a secret go-between for Barak and Assad, working to restart the Golan Heights talks, which broke off four months after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But until last week, Assad had refused to come to the table unless Barak first agreed to a promise the Syrian leader claims Rabin made: to withdraw Israeli forces to the line separating the armies of the two countries just before the Six-Day War. That line would put Syria on the cusp of the Sea of Galilee, a valuable water source for Israel. Barak insists Rabin never made such a promise, and refused to restart the talks with that boundary locked in ahead of time.

Realizing that Barak wouldn't budge, Assad pivoted and agreed that the boundary line would be an item of negotiation, not a precondition. Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin predicted that a peace treaty could be signed in "a matter of months."

That may be wishful thinking. Thorny problems still need to be resolved, not only on the boundary line but also on the timing of the Israeli withdrawal, plus the peace and security guarantees Syria would offer in return. Moreover, the Palestinians fear that their more complicated negotiations, in which Albright made little headway last week, will take a backseat while Barak cuts a deal with Assad. "Success is not inevitable," Clinton warned. But at least there was a glimmer of hope.

--By Douglas Waller; with reporting by Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem and Scott MacLeod/Cairo


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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