News Analysis: Peres looks to Syria as major player in peace process

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JERUSALEM — With long-stalled talks between Israel and Syria set to restart this month, the Jewish state has high hopes for its longtime enemy to the north.

Suddenly, in stark contrast to long-held policies, Israel is betting Syria will help forge a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Although some observers doubt such a scenario will work, others point to marked changes in Israeli-Syrian relations since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and Shimon Peres' accession to the prime ministership.

American officials traveling last week in the region with Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the tone in Damascus was different from anything they had heard before.

Similarly, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa created a stir this week when he declared his country wants to end the violence between Israeli troops and Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon. That violence has been escalating in recent weeks as members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah have intensified their attacks on Israeli targets.

Coming after a meeting with Lebanese ministers Tuesday in Beirut, al-Sharaa's remarks appeared to confirm Peres' statement to a Knesset committee Monday that the Americans had brokered an "understanding" between Jerusalem and Damascus on Lebanon.

The understanding apparently said the Syrians would try to ensure that the southern Lebanon border region stay quiet as the long-stalled talks proceed between the two countries.

Syrian President Hafez Assad abruptly cut off those talks during the summer amid a dispute over future security arrangements on the Golan Heights. In addition, Assad insisted Israel declare its willingness to fully withdraw from the strategic plateau before Syria declares its intentions about peace.

The new round of talks, announced during Christopher's visit last week, are scheduled to begin Wednesday, Dec. 27 at an undisclosed location near Washington.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, where semantics are as important as substances, there has already been a major change in the language of Israeli-Syrian peacemaking.

The key codewords are "comprehensive peace," a phrase that has been around for almost as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict itself. The term was previously expressed solely as an Arab demand meaning the Palestinians must achieve self-determination before the neighboring Arab states buried their animosity toward Israel.

Now, along with injecting a sudden urgency into the Israeli-Syrian track, Peres has introduced a new definition of "comprehensive peace."

Meeting with President Clinton last week in Washington, Peres suggested that an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would involve a dozen or more other Arab states.

All their leaders, in Peres' bold scenario, would attend the Israeli-Syrian signing ceremony and would sign their own bilateral peace accords with Israel, either simultaneously or shortly thereafter.

Only the "bully boys" of the Muslim world, as Peres calls them — Iran, Iraq, Libya and the Sudan — would be left out. In turn, the United States, Israel, Turkey and the Arab moderates would create a strategic alliance against those regimes.

Under such a scenario, Israel would probably be prepared to relinquish the Golan. Peres has not yet stated this outright, but it is his clear intention.

In exchange, Israel would receive iron-clad security arrangements supervised by the United States, diplomatic ties between Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut and open channels for trade and tourism.

It would also realize a truly comprehensive settlement between the Jewish state and the wider Arab and Muslim world.

However, not all observers here are convinced that the new approach is firmly grounded in reality.

Some critics say the plan gives Syria too much regional importance, and thereby could encourage that country to jack up its demands in its negotiations with Israel.

Furthermore, the critics ask, why would the fiercely proud Persian Gulf states or the North African countries sign on to peace with Israel just because Syria was doing so?

If Syria was perceived two decades ago as a powerful force for subversion among the more conservative Arab countries, its potential for such mischief is widely believed to have declined in recent years.

Similarly, Syria's Ba'athist-led secularist ethos is out of step with the religious spirit that pervades much of the Arab world.

As a recent example of Syria's waning influence, those critics point out that Jordan, traditionally apprehensive of Damascus, made peace with Israel last year without even informing — let alone consulting — Assad.

Nor did Amman quake when the Syrian leader expressed his ire about the deal.

Critics of Peres' new vision for the region also point out that economically backward Syria is hardly a regional front-runner while its dictatorial regime is also not a beacon of regional enlightenment.