News Analysis: In Israel, a new sobriety surrounds Syrian-Israeli talks

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JERUSALEM — The mood here has grown sober, as people realize that despite the markedly improved tenor of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, arduous talks lie ahead.

Not helping were 16 Katyusha rockets, which slammed into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona last Friday and Saturday, causing extensive property damage and minor injuries.

The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement, which took responsibility for the attacks, has plainly not given up hopes of disrupting the negotiations by taking innocent Israeli lives.

This new realism has also rekindled speculation about Prime Minister Shimon Peres' plans.

Theories about early elections are buzzing as pundits calculate the relationship between the state of the talks at the Wye Plantation in Maryland and the state of Israeli public opinion.

The first to lower the level of breathless expectation for peace with Syria was Uri Savir, the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who is heading the Israeli negotiating team with U.S. Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich.

In remarks to reporters after three days of talks in Maryland last week, Savir said the "pre-negotiating phase" was still under way. The Syrian side, he said, understood far better the Israeli view of peace.

But that did not mean that there was any substantive meeting of the minds on this issue, he added.

Predictions of a rocky road to peace were reflected by the official Syrian daily Tishreen.

"To achieve peace, Israel is required to clearly pledge to withdraw fully and quickly from the Golan to the June 4, 1967 lines," the newspaper said.

In Jerusalem, Yossi Beilin, a minister without portfolio and Peres' closest aide on the peace process, told Israel Television's Arab-language service that the treaty with Syria could take a year to finalize.

Diplomatic sources said the first round at Wye proceeded on the "hypothetical" assumption that Israel would withdraw from the entire Golan Heights.

A second three-day session was scheduled to begin midweek and is expected to be followed by a round of regional shuttle diplomacy later this month by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The peace scenario will grow clearer, Israeli officials said, if Syria signals a readiness to negotiate a detailed peace resting on broad security arrangements involving the two countries and international forces.

The Israeli team was reportedly buoyed by the Syrians' readiness to consider the idea of Israelis traveling to — or at least through — their country after a peace deal.

Syria's U.S. Ambassador Walid Muallem reportedly bridled at the thought of large-scale Israeli tourism to Syria.

The Syrians, noting that theirs is not a country of mass tourism, expressed concern that waves of visiting Israelis could disturb the social equilibrium.

But they seemed to approve the idea of open borders, which would allow some tourism and give Israelis the right to drive through Syria to neighboring Turkey.

For ordinary Israelis, this will be one of the touchstones of the entire peace process with Syria.

It will give them the ability, for the first time since the creation of the Jewish state, to travel completely by land to Europe.

But this benefit alone may not be enough to melt the very considerable opposition among Israelis to a total withdrawal from the strategic Golan.

Some commentators say Syrian President Hafez Assad will have to produce a Sadat-like piece of drama if he intends to procure for himself what the late Egyptian leader got for his country: Israel's withdrawal from all land taken in the 1967 Six Day War.

Americans, in their role as mediators, must persuade the dour Syrian dictator that nothing less than a trip to Jerusalem will do.

Meanwhile, the latest violence across the Lebanese border raises the old question of whether this is Syria's way to ratchet up pressures on negotiations.

Israeli troops exchanged fire with Hezbollah throughout last weekend. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded, and about 16 rockets fell inside northern Israel.

Christopher wasted little time pondering the point: He got Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa out of bed early Saturday for an urgent phone conversation about the attacks.

One suspicion troubling U.S. and Israeli officials is that the Syrians — if indeed they are encouraging or turning a blind eye to Hezbollah — may believe that the rocket attacks will spur the Israeli public to support the peace accord.

After all, as Israeli leaders themselves often tell their own people, a treaty with Syria would include Syrian-protected Lebanon, in a new era of lasting tranquility.

Syria, as both Israel and the United States maintain, can rein in Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon just as, for 22 years, it has not permitted any terrorist activity across its border with Israel.

This ostensibly logical thinking could backfire.

Israeli opinion could toughen — especially if the Katyusha attacks prove fatal. Peres met with Kiryat Shmona leaders in Jerusalem after the attacks to discuss economic development and repairs.

On the political front, Beilin's prediction would have the Golan deal clinched just as Israelis vote in national elections, tentatively set for Oct. 31.

This would be an ideally convenient way for putting the treaty to a ballot, as Yitzhak Rabin promised.

But such fine timing could also backfire, leaving Peres facing the electorate while still in the throes of tough bargaining with the Syrians.

Rather than chance that, Peres may call for early elections before the summer holiday.

Speaking to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz over the weekend, Peres insisted that he was not thinking of early elections — but added "at the moment" as an escape clause.

If the government's majority in the Knesset looked shaky — two members of Labor have broken ranks over the Golan issue — Peres added he would not hesitate to call early elections.

Still, a treaty — preferably with some fanfare from Assad and a lavish signing ceremony — could swing public opinion behind Peres.

Most likely, Peres will plan his domestic strategy along with his negotiating strategy with Syria — if Christopher's Mideast shuttle makes the prospects of a relatively quick deal clearer.