CBSN

The Guts Of The Golan Talks

Peace talks suspended since 1996 between arch-foes Israel and Syria are set to resume in Washington next week. Up for discussion will be the fate of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Since President Clintons revelation that the talks would resume, commentators have been scurrying to come up with a reason for Syria's supposed change of heart. The reason they may not be making much sense is that there wasn't one.

A close look at the evidence shows it wasn't Syria that was blocking a deal. Mostly it was Israel - going all the way back to when professed peacemaker Shimon Peres was in power, two Prime Ministers ago.

Pundits are talking about how tough the negotiations to cut a deal will be. That's also misleading. The main points of the agreement have already been settled.

CBS News Correspondent Jesse Schulman
And finally, the biggest remaining obstacle to a land-for-peace deal on the Golan Heights probably isn't Syrian's strongman Hafez Assad, with his poor health and his succession problems, but the Israeli voter.

Here's what really happened: Back in 1996, Israel broke off the talks that are now set to resume. Syria had agreed in talks held outside Washington to Israel's basic demands - in return for the getting back the Golan, Syria agreed in principle to full peace, demilitarization, early warning systems, open borders, diplomatic recognition, tourism and trade. In other words, Syria said, "Yes".

But Shimon Peres refused to take "Yes" for an answer. It was election time, and Israel was reeling from a wave of suicide bombings. Peres knew he could never sell a Golan pullback to a bitterly angry Israeli public. So Israel walked out of the talks one day and never came back, until now. The walkout is a mater of record, conveniently ignored.

So the resumption of talks announced by President Clinton isn't quite as presented. There have been behind the scenes contacts (even under hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), messages passed, principles nailed down. What will mainly be discussed between Prime Minster Barak and Syrian foreign Minister Farouk as-Shaara isn't the fine print of the deal, but whether and when to go ahead with it. If the Washington talks go well, look for a Barak- Assad meeting soon.

Barring a major surprise, the biggest remaining obstacle is the Israeli voter. Barak has to win a referendum on the accord - he promised to give the Israeli public the final word. This week he launched his campaign to win that referendum, and predicted he'll get overwhelming backing. The pollsters beg to differ - if the vote were held today, they say, Barak would lose.

For three decades, it's been a central part of Israel's nationamythology that the Golan is essential to the country's security. Successive leaders going back a generation and a half have declared that giving up the Golan would be national suicide. A generation and a half of military officials have overstated Syria' military strength - the Pentagon's exaggerations about Soviet power were mild in comparison.

The raw emotional force of the Golan for Israelis comes from the terrible losses suffered in a 1973 war, when the Israeli army was asleep at the switch and Syria came close to regaining the Golan by force. The fighting was bitter, and heroic. Many families lost fathers, brothers and sons on the wind-scoured Golan ground. For many here, the Golan Heights is a wound unhealed.

Barak has already revealed the broad outlines of the sales pitch he'll make. He'll try to show Israelis that extensive security measures - demilitarization of the Golan, early warning systems, a build-down of the Syrian military facing the Golan - will leave Israel safer, not in greater danger because of a pullback.

Considered coolly and rationally - which is the only way the tough and brainy Barak has ever considered anything - the advantages of peace with Syria are overwhelming. But winning minds won't be enough. The Golan is in the guts.

Ehud Barak has fought some tough battles in his life, braved bullets and killed enemies. The coming political fight may make him nostalgic for the clean simplicities of armed combat.

By Jesse Schulman
©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved