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Israel Reaps Fruit Of Peace

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AP
Silence spoke volumes on Israel's northern border early Friday. Israeli officials were taking it as a clear sign that Damascus was reining in Lebanese guerrillas in order to avoid disrupting landmark peace talks that resumed in Washington earlier this week.

"There is clear Syrian involvement" in Hizbollah restraint, said Ori Orr, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Labor Party. Orr commanded Israeli forces in Lebanon when Israel pulled most of its troops out in 1985.

On Thursday, Israeli allies shelled a Lebanese school and injured as many as 20 children - an act that in the past would most likely have provoked immediate guerrilla shelling of northern Israel. But 24 hours later no rockets had fallen and Hizbollah said it would hold its fire for the time being.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, who took part in the Washington talks, said Israel was given to understand by Syrian negotiators that they "will fight against anyone who would try to break up the talks."

With as many as 35,000 troops in the country, Syria is Lebanon's main power broker. Israel and its militia allies, the South Lebanon Army, are battling Shiite Muslim Hizbollah and other guerrillas from a 9-mile-deep border strip they occupy inside southern Lebanon.

If quiet on the border prevails, it might be the first concrete outcome of the two-day Washington talks, which ended Thursday with an agreement to meet again Jan. 3, for a longer round of negotiations.

"We are satisfied with the outcome of the talks," a senior Syrian official said Friday, adding that Damascus was looking forward to the next round of negotiations.

Syrian papers, meanwhile, published special editions Friday to cover the talks. While noting that this is just the beginning, the papers reflected an optimistic line. Al-Thawra wrote that there appeared to be a positive change in the attitudes of the United States and Israel, "especially the latter, toward peace."

Returning from Washington, Barak was met by his army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, at the airport where the two reportedly discussed the situation in Lebanon.

Israeli involvement in Lebanon looms large behind the Israel-Syrian talks. Israel says Syria controls Lebanon and is at least partially responsible for Hizbollah attacks, though Iran finances and supplies the guerrillas. There are daily clashes between Israeli forces and Hizbollah fighters, including artillery exchanges. Israel created the border zone in 1985, ostensibly to prevent cross-border attacks.

For years it has been understood here that if Israel or SLA cause civilian casualties, Hizbollah will retaliate with a rocket attack on Israeli border villages.

After an SLA shell landed in a schoolyard Thursday, injuring as many as 20 pupils, Israelis on the border opened underground shelters and stayed away from public places like restaurants and pubs. Some slept in the shelters, but there was no rcket attack.

The SLA shelling itself came a day after two Lebanese civilians were killed inside the zone patrolled by Israel and its allies.

Israel is hoping for further Syrian confidence-building measures, said Levy. He requested information about four soldiers missing in Lebanon, and the return of the body of Israeli spy Eli Cohen, hanged in Damascus in 1965.

Syria also wants interim steps. Briefing reporters, Israeli officials reportedly said Syria's first priority is to be removed from the United States list of nations that support terrorism. That could lead to American aid and investment.

Syria's main demand is the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in 1967. Israel has indicated its agreement in principle, but demands full peace and strict security arrangements in return.

There are, however, lingering disputes about the exact location of the legitimate international border.

The talks on Wednesday and Thursday between Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were the first high-level encounter in over half a century between the two countries.

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