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Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 10:21 GMT
Historic opportunity for peace
Israeli soldier
An Israeli soldier stands on top of his tank in the Golan Heights
By Hilary Andersson in Jerusalem

The decision by Syria and Israel to resume peace talks was the most significant breakthrough in the peace process for several years.

Middle East
It marked, as the politicians rightly boasted, an historic opportunity to bring regional peace to the Middle East.

But in his first public comments after the announcement in December 1999 that talks would start in Washington, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the Syrians were masters of brinkmanship.

He said success in the peace talks was not guaranteed.

President Clinton also chose to highlight the problems ahead.

"There can be no illusion here. On all tracks the road ahead will be arduous, the task of negotiating agreements will be difficult," he said.

Success not guaranteed

It is impossible to predict the outcome.

A fair amount of work has been done behind the scenes

David Makovsky
No one knows exactly what formulae broke the deadlock, which had frozen all direct communication between the Syrians and the Israelis since 1996.

The Syrians had long insisted that they would not resume peace talks until the Israelis pledged to restart talks at the point where they were broken off.

The Syrians have always said that the former Israeli Government of Yitzhak Rabin had agreed to return the Golan Heights in full. Subsequent Israeli Governments - including the current one - have denied this.

Israel's Foreign Minister David Levy has made it clear that next week's talks are not resuming with preconditions, reiterating that Israel will not withdraw to the 1967 borders of the Golan Heights.

Still, there has been some speculation that Syria's President Assad may have been persuaded to restart the talks because of American assurances over which land he would receive as part of a peace deal.

It is also possible that, with American mediation, the two sides have come to some kind of preliminary and informal understanding of what concessions each side might make on the issues of border security and water rights.

"It seems that a fair amount of work has been done behind the scenes, so the talks are not starting at point zero", says David Makovsky, the editor of the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

Time is right

Israel is keen to have a military presence on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, whilst Syria has always been against this.

UN jeep
A UN jeep passes in front of a checkpoint in the Golan Heights
Both sides are keen to have control over the critical water resources that flow from the luscious Golan into the barren deserts around.

A more fundamental reason why the two sides agreed to restart talks may be that, for their own political reasons, the Syrians, the Israelis and the Americans all think the time is now right.

President Assad has his ailing health to contend with, whilst Mr Barak - a determined and ambitious military man by training - came to power pledging to change history in the region during his tenure in power.

With American elections looming, President Clinton's time in power is also running short. If he is to go down in history for his successes rather than his personal failures, achieving peace in the Middle East in the year 2000 may be his only hope.

Lebanon question

In the background too is the worrying question of Lebanon.

A sign warns of mines above the Sea of Galilee
Mr Barak upped the stakes of not reaching a peace deal with Syria with his frequently repeated pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by the middle of next year.

Both sides know that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal in the absence of a peace deal could dramatically escalate the conflict.

If the Islamic militant group Hezbollah were to launch heavy attacks to try to make a withdrawal look like a military defeat, Israel would probably respond with overwhelming force.

This could draw Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, directly into the fighting.

Syria wants Israel to withdraw from Lebanon as part of a regional peace deal. Then it can use an offer of helping assure Israel's border security as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table, where winning back the Golan Heights is Syria's main aim.

Elusive deal

But even if the timing is right, how likely is it that a deal can be done?

The Middle East peace process is notorious for starting and stopping. There are some that think that December's breakthrough could only be another blip in a decades-long conflict that could continue well into the next century.

It is a fact that peace is by no means assured. But it is also a fact that these talks, unlike the last ones, are taking place at a very high level.

Because of intense American mediation, the two sides should know almost all there is to know about each other's starting positions in the negotiations.

If peace is not made this time, an historic opportunity will have been missed.

See also:

10 Dec 99 | Middle East
10 Dec 99 | Middle East
09 Dec 99 | Middle East
09 Dec 99 | Middle East
07 Dec 99 | Middle East
03 Sep 99 | Israel elections
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