Israel and Syria look to revive peace talks while saving face


JERUSALEM -- Facing a season of danger, Israel and Syria are looking for a face-saving way to revive peace efforts that all but died two weeks ago.

On the eve of a visit by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Washington, top Israeli officials rejected ideas to break the impasse that were floated by a British journalist with close ties to Damascus, but kept the door open for more approaches.

Patrick Seale, writing in the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, proposed a formula to allay Israeli fears of losing control over a key water source in a redrawn border with Syria.

Seale said the proposal was his own, but as it appeared on newsstands, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa told Egyptian newspapers Saturday, "Land is not negotiable, but water is."

The day before, Sharaa reversed his previously negative comments about a planned Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. He told reporters in Cairo: "Such a withdrawal is for sure supported by Syria and Lebanon because it is considered a victory for the Lebanese resistance and all the Arabs."

The new tone from Sharaa, coupled with the Seale proposal, marked the first hints of Syrian flexibility since the failure of a summit March 26 between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez el Assad. After that, Israeli and U.S. officials abandoned hopes of getting a deal with Syria and worked on gaining international backing for an orderly Israeli troop withdrawal from south Lebanon.

The planned withdrawal opens the prospect of new instability on the northern border, with guerrilla attacks on northern Israeli villages and heavy Israeli retaliation against Lebanon and possibly Syrian positions there.

This weekend's soundings from Syria produced a flurry of media speculation in Israel over the weekend about new hopes for Israeli-Syrian talks. Ma'ariv commentator Hemi Shalev wrote that "in the middle of the eulogy, just like in the movies, the corpse began to move."

Barak sought to lower expectations yesterday, telling a news conference, "I'm not optimistic about the chances to resume negotiations with Syria, but we left the door still open, and I don't think it would be appropriate to close it at this time."

An official in the prime minister's office said that "if the Syrians have anything to say, they'll say it through the Americans, and we'll find a way to respond. The channel for negotiations is through the Americans, and not through the press in any way."

Barak told his Cabinet yesterday that the main thrust of his meeting with Clinton tomorrow would be on advancing talks with the Palestinians and ensuring a peaceful Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon.

But almost as he spoke, fighting on the Lebanon border offered fresh evidence that Israel's withdrawal might be anything but peaceful. A wave of shelling between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas injured at least seven people, and a guerrilla anti-aircraft shell landed in a village inside Israel.

Clinton's summit with Assad broke down over where to draw the new border between Israel and Syria. Israel was prepared to relinquish the Golan Heights, which it captured during the 1967 war, but was unwilling to give Syria control over the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which provides 30 percent of Israel's water.

Israel wants to keep a 30-foot-wide strip of shoreline fixed in the 1923 international border. Syria wants the line drawn to the point that Syria occupied as of June 4, 1967, giving it access to the lake.

At that time, Syria controlled the northeastern shore of the lake and at least intermittently was able to fish there.

Seale's proposal called for Syria to gain sovereignty over the shoreline, with Israel keeping sovereignty over the waters of the lake. Syrians would be allowed to fish, swim and vacation on the lake.

The shore area, he said, could have open access for both countries, with Israelis being able to drive around the lake as they do now. Security would be placed under a United Nations umbrella.

"All the fingerprints indicate that the idea is coming from Damascus," said Amatzia Baram, a Haifa University professor of Middle East history who knows Seale. "It's not something the Israeli government is going to reject out of hand."

On negotiations with the Palestinians, Barak told his Cabinet yesterday that parts of the West Bank abutting Jerusalem will ultimately come under Palestinian control, but a large Jewish West Bank settlement near the disputed city will be annexed to Israel.

Barak had previously rejected Palestinian Authority demands for full control of any areas adjoining Jerusalem. His announcement came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington to hammer out the framework of a final peace agreement.

The two negotiating teams were attempting to draft a framework for a final peace deal -- grappling with the toughest issues on the table, including borders, the status of a future Palestinian state, refugees and Jerusalem.

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