Israel and Syria Struggle to Break the Ice

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So far, Israel and Syria can't even agree on what issues to disagree on. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa on Monday did accomplish the rather difficult feat of completing the first day of talks hosted by President Clinton in Shepherdstown, West Virginia without actually meeting face to face. Although the U.S. has imposed a news blackout to create a more conducive environment for a week of diplomacy, State Department spokesman James Rubin said Monday that the two sides had not yet agreed on the agenda for the talks. Syria wants to begin with territorial issues; Israel wants the first item to be its security requirements. While the principle framework for a peace agreement involves Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace, normalization of relations and ironclad security guarantees, the devilish details keep a deal tantalizingly out of reach.

Each side has a very different idea of the requirements of Israeli security. Israel wants a military presence at listening posts on the Golan Heights and a demilitarized zone all the way to Damascus; Syria wants Israel to make do with electronic surveillance. 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 their 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 Israel's primary source of drinking water makes it a prime piece of real estate in a region where real estate negotiations are never easy. Then again, neither side would be at the talks if they didn't need a deal.