- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

It was the voice of a man ready to parley with dignity: "We respect [Syrian] President [Hafez] Assad and if he needs some time before negotiations resume, we respect it." Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was not going to let the blame shift to Israel for not showing up in Washington for a new round of negotiations with Syria today. Syria had demanded Israel commit to returning the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, before talks could continue. Mr. Barak wasn't about to bite, and it is well that he doesn't.

Israel didn't even wait a day to pursue other options, namely the Palestinians. Within hours of the announcement that it would not be meeting Syria, Mr. Barak launched into talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, deciding that they would create a framework accord in less than a month. With this, it sent a signal to Syria that Mr. Barak is serious about pursuing peace with its neighbors whether or not Syria resorts to name calling and tantrums over what has become essential to Syria's self-confidence since 1967: the return of the Golan.

While Mr. Barak is negotiating with Mr. Arafat, Syria is busy reminding itself and the world how it has been wronged. First there was the fact that Israel leaked to the press the conditions of the working paper prepared by the United States and presented to both sides in Shepherdstown, W.Va, revealing (to the Syrians anger and embarrassment) that Israel would be pushing for allowing the 17,000 Israeli settlers now living in the Golan to stay there even after the peace accord was signed. To even imply that Syria would consider negotiating under conditions where it would not be fully in control over the area is a severe blow to Syrian national pride.

As if that wasn't enough, there is speculation about whether Israel was playing off the Syrians by turning to the Palestinian peace track. No matter what Israel's motives for the quick change of plans, it is time for Syria to stop playing victim and show that it is ready to make some concessions of its own.

Lebanon admitted for the first time Tuesday that a peace agreement with Israel "could be an agreement on the security arrangements," according to Syrian Prime Minister Salim Hoss. This is a start. Now it's time for Syria to show Israel how such a possibility can be turned to reality. Once Syria takes a step toward proving to Israel that its security is ensured, trips to Washington for representatives of both Middle East countries can produce more than endless mind games.

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