Syria and Israel Embark on the Hard Yard

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Mideast real estate negotiations are never easy, but three wars over occupancy have put the Golan Heights in a league of its own. Israeli and Syrian negotiators on Monday began ten days of intense peace talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with U.S. officials playing down expectations for any kind of breakthroughs and warning that further rounds might be necessary. To be sure, the principle framework for an agreement between Israel and its most intractable foe has been on the table for quite some time: Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syrian control, in exchange for peace, normalizing of relations and iron-clad security guarantees. But the devilish details keep a deal tantalizingly out of reach.

Each side naturally has a very different idea of the requirements of Israeli security. Israel wants to maintain a military presence at listening posts on the Golan Heights and a demilitarized zone inside Syria stretching all the way back to Damascus; Syria wants to convince them that electronic surveillance will suffice. And concerns over a domestic backlash may make Syria reluctant to accept Israeli demands that "normalization" include open borders and free trade. But the most important sticking point remains territorial: Syria interprets the return of the Golan to mean a return to the border — along the north shore of the sea of Galilee — that existed before the June 1967 war; Israel is prepared to withdraw only to the border established in 1923 during the colonial era. The difference between those two lines is only a few square miles, but the location of those square miles alongside Israelís primary source of drinking water makes it a patch of real estate that Prime Minister Ehud Barak wonít easily concede. Then again, both sides recognize that the twilight of President Hafez Assadís reign may be their last opportunity for some time to close a deal.