- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

As inconclusive as the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Shepardstown, W.Va. were this past week, Israel introduced a refreshing element to Middle East peace negotiations: honesty and no-nonsense negotiating. Unlike the peace talks held in Washington just one month earlier, even the Americans seemed to recognize this was no time for photo-ops, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted that the negotiations would entail a tough diplomatic battle of uncertain length. By not giving Syria a blank check for the Golan Heights captured by the Israelis in the war of 1967, Mr. Barak showed that he, for one, was serious about the peace talks.

"If we give them land, we'll get only a piece of paper in return," demonstrator Yona Doktorovich who was protesting the handover of the Golan told Reuters in Tel Aviv. That's the risk that Mr. Barak has been asked to take by the Syrians. By making clear that he wouldn't be satisfied with another "historic" accord that is treated later as so much tinder though, Mr. Barak is ensuring that any deal that is made will produce more than a degradable peace treaty from the Syrians.

And Mr. Barak was able to recognize the Syrian effort for what it was: half-hearted. To have Israel's highest leader "negotiating" with someone other than Syria's president would make any resulting accord defunct. In an interview on CNN Wednesday, Mr. Barak said he could not imagine creating a peace deal with Syria before President Hafez al-Assad becomes involved in the negotiations.

It's no wonder, then, that even as the Syrians declared their intent to get back the high ground of the Golan Heights, Israel made no concessions. What would they get in return? Promises, not guarantees of ending state terrorism and terminating sponsorship of the activities of the Islamic terrorist organization Hezbollah, an anti-Israeli group that operates out of Lebanon. Perhaps the Syrians may even talk of ending their partnerships with North Korea and Iran. But as argued by the authors of a special report produced for Commentary magazine, "U.S. Forces on the Golan Heights," "The argument that 'peace is better than territory' is valid only as long as there is peace."

If Syrians change their mind somewhere down the road about the necessity of keeping their anti-Israel fighting machine from launching an attack, Israel is left wide open. Without the Golan Heights, northern Israel shrinks in width by nearly 50 percent, according to the Commentary report, which has been reissued by the Center for Security Policy in Washington. With the loss of that high ground, Israel gives up its current early warning defense system against Syrian attack as well its main source of water supply.

As Israel and Syria head back into talks on the 19th, they must keep in mind what the foundation for a peace accord is. As valid as a U.S. presence during the negotiations may be, neither side must be dependent on the United States either politically or military for making this peace work. U.S. troops based on Israeli soil in the wake of conceding the Golan to Syria would give Israelis a false sense of security. It could also provoke terrorist action against the United States without Syrians having to take responsibility, the 11 defense experts writing the Golan Heights report predicted. The United States then loses on both Israeli and Syrian fronts, and peace once again becomes a matter of superfluous rhetoric.

Now Syria must show that it is serious about the talks by allowing Mr. Assad himself to become involved in the negotiations, and by preparing a system of accountability that would check their peace promises after asking Israel to give up such vital territory. With the Syrian economy bankrupt and other Arab countries willing to negotiate with Israel despite its uncertain relationship with Syria, Israel is in a position to name its price. As 100,000 protesters reminded negotiators in Tel Aviv Monday, no price is too high for Israel's strategic high ground.

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