Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to move fast to take advantage of a short honeymoon with the Palestinians and the Syrians on the dual Mideast peace track. In meetings with the new Israeli prime minister and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat in Jerusalem this month, I found determination by both sides to succeed in implementing the Wye Accord, even though difficult issues are yet to be resolved.
A more serious problem confronts the parties on the Israeli-Syrian track. Unless a formula can be devised to break the deadlock over Syrian insistence that talks begin where former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin left off and Israeli rejection of preconditions, these negotiations may never even begin. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's timely visit to the region in early September may provide the catalyst to bring the parties together.
Aside from semantics, the parties may not be far apart now. Syria concedes that no agreement was ever completed but says that President Clinton had "in his pocket" Rabin's commitment to give up the Golan Heights if security and other conditions were met. Even that starting point gives the Israelis considerable latitude to reject any deal they do not find wholly to their liking.
The viability of any accord always has rested on the implicit assumption that the Golan would be returned to Syria. I have talked to world leaders who have confirmed President Hafez Assad's representation that Rabin was willing to relinquish the Golan, subject to exacting conditions. In the past, Syria has expressed a willingness to sign a peace treaty and to let it go to a referendum by the Israeli electorate on ceding the Golan.
But it is not for the United States or anyone else to say whether Israel should relinquish the Golan Heights. Only Israel has the right to decide whether its national interest warrants making that concession. If Israel is not prepared to give up the Golan, then it is clear that Syria will not sign a peace agreement and that the parties would be spinning their wheels in any negotiations.
Barak has said that peace with Syria will require painful territorial concessions, which has been interpreted as code for a return of the Golan. More recently, he has said that a peace treaty with Syria will be easier to conclude than to begin. That suggests he is understandably troubled by the concept of preconditions.
The prime minister makes a valid point in questioning why negotiations cannot start without a precondition that goes to the heart of a prospective agreement. Similarly, I have heard President Assad make an equally valid point that a party (Israel) should be bound by acts of its authorized officials (the Rabin government) without having them repudiated by a successor (the Netanyahu government), requiring the parties to go back to square one. If each proud nation insists on the primacy of its own "principle," the game will never begin. In the more than three years since the assassination of Rabin, Israel and Syria have shadow boxed over this precise point.
If the reality is that the Golan will be returned to Syria when Israel is satisfied on security issues -- including early warning, the boundary line, water rights, the ingredients of a full peace, the ouster of terrorist groups from Damascus and the end of hostilities in southern Lebanon -- then let someone say so as a starting point. Albright might be the right person to make that declaration when she shuttles between Jerusalem and Damascus in early September. If Israeli domestic politics precludes a candid statement by Barak on the endgame, perhaps the same report could be conveyed privately from Barak to Albright to Assad, like the famous Chicago Cubs double-play combination Tinkers to Evers to Chance.
Assad does not hurry his conversations or the development of relationships. He may understandably feel slighted by the attention long showered on Arafat and the Palestinians. Completion of an agreement will require the personal involvement of President Clinton, who has stated his willingness to carry out the role he began in the Rabin era by having the Israeli withdrawal commitment "in his pocket."
With the ebb and flow of events in the Mideast for the past 50 years, it is hard to say that this is the right time or the only time to make peace. We do know that right now Barak is riding a wave of Israeli public support after having campaigned on a platform of territorial concessions for peace. We also know that time may well be running out, considering the age and health of President Assad and Chairman Arafat.
Peace may be ambushed at any time by terrorists in the street or dissidents in any camp. An era of goodwill is almost unheard of in the Mideast and may not be expected to last for long. The customarily friendly Jordan Times on Aug. 21 quotes Israeli columnists who criticize the new prime minister for his "authoritarian arrogance."
Some say Assad would not take yes for an answer on the prospective proposals of then-Prime Minister Rabin. It's a tall order, but Secretary Albright may be able to prompt coordinated affirmative answers from Israeli and Syrian negotiators to "let the game begin."
The writer is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania.