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An Optimism Worth Nurturing : Christopher works the Middle East shuttle and actually smiles

August 07, 1993

No date has been set yet for resuming the Middle East peace talks, which recessed in deadlock last month. But Secretary of State Warren Christopher, after consultations in the region with all the major parties, says the process has been "salvaged" and that--contrary to the professed pessimism with which he began his trip--he is now "full of hope and enthusiasm" that progress can be made over the next few months. Coming from Christopher, known for his lawyerly caution with words, this hint of optimism seems almost exultant.

If the secretary is indeed encouraged it has to be because of the seriousness of the dialogue that now seems to be firmly under way between Israel and Syria. That conversation was facilitated by Christopher's shuttling this week between Jerusalem and Damascus, in the course of which he carried messages and clarifications about what Israel wants for making territorial concessions to Syria, and what Syria will give.

The territory in question, the Golan Heights, was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The strategic significance of the heights is that they overlook northern Israel and were used by Syria as an artillery platform. The Israelis are highly unlikely to withdraw from the heights without ironbound assurances that, at a minimum, the area will be demilitarized. But the heights are also of formidable political importance, for very much on the mind of President Hafez Assad in Damascus is the Sinai precedent. When Egypt and Israel made peace in 1980, Egypt regained sovereignty over the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, which it had lost in the 1967 war. It's highly unlikely that Syria would agree to the full peace that Israel demands unless it too can reclaim all of its lost territory--i.e., the Golan Heights. To settle for anything less would be seen as capitulation.

That substantive Israeli-Syrian talks are under way doesn't mean a breakthrough is imminent. Probably it will be years rather than months before an agreement is in sight. The key thing is that both sides have now moved toward defining a mutual goal each is prepared to work for. Against a long history of bitter conflict, this represents real progress.

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