An American official closely involved in the Israel-Syria peace talks assesses the latest round as having "significantly advanced" understanding of key issues. But, U.S. mediator Dennis Ross says, "differences of substance or perspective" remain, a diplomatic way of acknowledging that sharp disagreements stand in the way of any early breakthrough. Those differences will once again send Secretary of State Warren Christopher off to Jerusalem and Damascus next week, on his 17th negotiating mission to the area. Right now Christopher anticipates making only one round-trip between the two capitals, suggesting that he sees this visit as involving more exhortation than mediation.
The bilateral talks are now competing against the clock. Israel must hold national elections by Oct. 29, but Prime Minister Shimon Peres could opt for balloting as early as May, in hopes of transforming the evident drop in support for the opposition Likud Party that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November into support for his Labor Party. A Labor victory is not certain. But a Labor loss would virtually assure the indefinite suspension of peace talks with Syria. Likud is committed to keeping the Golan Heights under Israeli control. Without a return of the Golan, Syrian President Hafez Assad has made clear, a peace agreement is impossible.
The peace process, though, affects more than Syria. As Israel has progressed toward agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians, its half-century of isolation in the broader Arab and Islamic worlds has begun to erode. Israel now has ties of varying breadth and visibility with Arab states from Morocco to Oman. It has made breakthroughs with Muslim governments in Africa and Asia. There is a sense that most Arab regimes--Libya and Iraq as always excepted--are weary of the unproductive Arab-Israel conflict and ready, even eager, to explore with Israel what most experts think is a huge potential for cooperative regional economic growth and development. What are these regimes waiting for? The absence of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria is the cork in the bottle. If Syria can make peace and establish normal relations with Israel it becomes permissible for other Arab states to follow suit.
But the path to peace is strewn with the obstacles of harsh practicalities: finding agreement on security arrangements, on the timing of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan, on the nature of future political, trade and other "normal" relations between the two countries. Peres would love to have these obstacles out of the way before Israelis next vote. If they aren't, it could be a long time before any American secretary of state is again ready to shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus.