How will Israeli premier handle opposition to Syrian peace deal

JERUSALEM — The estimated 150,000 demonstrators who turned out this week in a cold rain in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square do not necessarily represent the majority of Israelis.

But Monday night's protest provided an impressive show of strength by those opposed to withdrawing from the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal with Syria.

Indeed, Tel Aviv University Professor Effy Ya'ar asserts that if a planned referendum on a Golan withdrawal were held now, the anti-withdrawal forces would carry the day.

That was the sobering reality to which Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned Tuesday, after 10 days of less-than-productive talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in the sleepy West Virginia town of Shepherdstown.

Barak sent Foreign Minister David Levy back to Israel on Sunday to assure the public, before the demonstration, that no agreement on a withdrawal had been reached.

"There was no real progress," Levy declared. "Nothing was settled, nothing conceded."

In an effort to achieve progress, the United States plans to seek the direct involvement of Syrian President Hafez Assad in the negotiations, State Department spokesman James Rubin said Wednesday.

"I think we agree with the Israeli prime minister that President Assad will have a role to play before this act is completed, if it is going to be completed," Rubin said.

Just the same, he reiterated the U.S. position that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa is "empowered and authorized" to negotiate on behalf of Syria.

Earlier in the week, as if to balance Levy's deliberately downbeat depiction of the state of the talks, U.S., Israeli and Syrian officials announced in Shepherdstown that they would be reconvening Jan. 19 in the United States for a further round of negotiations.

Significantly, the timing of that round coincides with a planned visit by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the White House.

For the past few weeks, Arafat has persistently urged President Clinton — and Barak — not to lose momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because of the resumption of the long-dormant Syrian track.

Barak and Arafat have committed themselves to achieve a framework agreement on permanent peace by the middle of next month.

Some of Barak's aides are said to be telling him that this timetable, always considered ambitious, is now unrealistic given the time and effort he is investing in the Syrian talks.

This argument assumes that Barak, for domestic political reasons, will want to separate the two tracks, focusing first on the Syrian agreement and trying to pass a Golan referendum — and only later turning to the final peace accord with the Palestinians.

But there is another school of thought that suggests the premier would do better in securing Israeli public support by trying to reach agreement on both tracks simultaneously.

He could then hold a referendum on a comprehensive peace package that includes withdrawals from the Golan, southern Lebanon and the West Bank, with the complex issue of Jerusalem perhaps left open for further negotiation.

That approach could realize Barak's election promise "to end 100 years of conflict between Arabs and Israelis."

Alternatively, a deal with Syria, while the Palestinian track remains static, would risk leaving the Palestinian track unresolved — and that could deter voters from supporting a deal with Damascus.

For the moment, though, the Syrian deal still looks uncertain not only because of domestic skepticism but because the negotiations so far appear to have produced less than had been hoped for.

In Shepherdstown, the Syrians leaked to the Arabic newspaper al-Hayyat what purported to be the text of an American paper setting out areas of agreement and of disagreement.

The paper reported that Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Golan to the international border of 1923. But both Israeli and U.S. officials insisted that Barak had not agreed to that, let alone to the Syrian demand for a withdrawal to the border that existed on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War. The latter would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Barak's aides say that Israel and Syria have yet to agree on the crucial issue of security, and that the extent of the Golan withdrawal would be determined largely in light of that issue.

Still, the Israelis do not deny that a committee on borders had convened in Shepherdstown, and presumably discussed the Syrian border demands.

Beyond the lack of substantive progress at the negotiations, the Israeli side is concerned at the even slower pace of "atmospheric" warming.

Levy noted that Sharaa "opened up a little" as the conference wore on.

But the fact remains that there was no photographed handshake between him and Barak, that Sharaa answered no questions from the Israeli media, and that Syria has offered no confidence-building gestures. Those gestures would include giving Israel the remains of Eli Cohen, hanged in Damascus as an Israeli spy more than 30 years ago.

With no encouraging signs from Syria as a counterbalance — and with the pro-peace forces waiting for more progress in the negotiations to mobilize their forces — those opposed to a deal are vowing to keep up the pressure on Barak.

The 150,000 demonstrators who turned out Monday night included a broad patchwork of Israelis — secular, religious and immigrants alike.

Organizers had tried to keep the rally as broad-based as possible to send the message that the Golan is important to all of Israeli society.

Political representation on the podium included not only members of the opposition but two members of Barak's own cabinet, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah and Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party.

Both ministers, members of the previous Likud government, have vowed to bolt Barak's coalition if he agrees to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

During the demonstration, loudspeakers played recordings of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stressing the strategic importance of the Golan.

Some observers noted the irony not only of the use of Rabin's words but of staging such a rally at the very site where Rabin was assassinated in 1995 at the end of a huge pro-peace rally.

Sources close to Barak said the rally did not shake the prime minister. Instead, they said, the rally had strengthened his position in the negotiations since it would prove how difficult it would be for him to make significant concessions.

Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon expressed confidence that once a comprehensive accord is presented to the Israeli people, the public mood will change.

"Until now, the only thing people are talking about is the withdrawal," he said. "Nobody is aware of what we will get if we withdraw," including security and "comprehensive peace with the Arab world."