The unexpected thaw in Israeli-Syrian relations was symbolised in a handshake and warm words for the new Rabin government from the Syrian delegate at the start of the new round of Middle East peace negotiations in Washington on 24 August. Leaks from the current talks suggest both sides are working on a peace deal that would return part of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for movement towards demilitarisation of the area and a normalisation of relations.
Even before Rabin’s victory in June, Syria had signalled to Israel, via the Egyptians and Americans, that it was ready to talk. President Assad began to relax the discriminatory regulations against Syria’s 4,000-strong Jewish community Since the end of April, 20 per cent of Syria’s Jews have left on tourist visas for the US. The Israelis, in turn, have released 800 Arab prisoners and cancelled the planned deportation of 11 Palestinians. Last week, more than 200 Golan Druze leaders were received by Assad, who told them he was seeking “the peace of the brave”.
Since 1967, Israel has established 32 settlements, including a fair number of kibbutzim, on the Golan Heights. Unlike those on the West Bank, they were deemed security settlements and not ideological ones. But when Rabin met a delegation of settlers last week, he did not reassure them about the fate of their homes. He referred instead to a resolution of the 1991 Israeli Labour Party Conference which agreed “a limited territorial compromise on the Golan in return for genuine peace”. In several interviews, Rabin has repeated his willingness for a limited withdrawal if the Syrians do not link the issue to other aspects of Middle East negotiations.
Although there are only 1,300 Israelis on the Heights, Rabin may not find the path to peace a smooth one. He is opposed by the United Kibbutz movement and his close aide, the new director-general of the prime minister’s office, Shimon Shevis, is a veteran campaigner for the Golan settlers.
A partial solution may be to resurrect the 1974 Kissinger Plan, which suggested that, in return for acceptance of Syrian sovereignty over the Heights, Israel could lease the land Hong-Kong style for several decades. Israeli-Syrian disengagement could then run in tandem with the five-year timetable for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza under discussion in Washington.
New Statesman 18 September 1992