Israel and Syria: The Deal Is in the Details

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Israel and Syria wouldn't be talking if they didn't have the basis of a deal. But demons in the details may keep the Jewish state and its most implacable foe from reaching a speedy deal. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa settled into a getting-to-know-you session in Washington Wednesday, after the U.S. brought them together despite Israel's refusal of Syria's precondition that it publicly commit to withdrawing from the Golan Heights. "Syria's President Hafez Assad obviously got what he needed to hear to restart talks," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "The essence of Barak's message to him before the talks would have been that Israel would withdraw from all of the Golan in exchange for security guarantees, although the two sides may differ on what 'all of the Golan' actually means."

While Israel military doctrine has conventionally held that it would be a mistake to surrender the strategic plateau, the shifting forms of modern warfare make it a conceivable step in exchange for enforceable guarantees. "Remember, Ehud Barak is a former chief of the army, and he's still Israel's minister of defense and its most decorated soldier," says Beyer. "Security remains his first priority, and if he deems it permissible to cede the Golan, that carries tremendous weight."

Israel's primary tactical concern is to avoid a repeat of the October 1973 war, when Israel suffered critical losses after being taken by surprise by a Syrian buildup. Israel will therefore insist on demilitarization and extensive monitoring as a precodition for withdrawal. Despite security fears, peace with Syria would mean that all of Israel's immediate Arab neighbors recognize the 51-year-old Jewish state as a permanent reality, and that remains an enticing prospect for Barak — to be pursued with urgency before the ailing Assad leaves the scene, potentially complicating any peace moves. Right now, Israeli opposition to ceding the Golan actually suits Barak's negotiating strategy by emphasizing the difficulty of Israel's concessions. "Polls may show Israelis divided over handing over the Golan, but they also showed Israelis opposed to handing back the Sinai to Egypt ahead of the Camp David talks," says Beyer. "Public opinion will shift quickly once a deal emerges."