FOR YEARS, Syria has ruled out any discussion of what sort of peace it is willing to offer Israel until Israel agrees to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, which it has held since 1967. Israel has balked at this, arguing that it cannot commit itself to giving up the Golan without a precise sense of whether the peace it would get in return would compensate in strategic terms for the loss. The suspension of the high-level Syrian-Israeli talks that were scheduled to resume last week flows out of this dispute. Following the publication by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz of an American document that emerged from the last round of talks, Syria is insisting that borders must be decided before further discussion of other issues can take place.
The document summarizes areas of agreement and difference between the two parties, and it shows that while Syria had, so far, not exacted any sort of commitment for a full withdrawal from the Golan, it had taken certain preliminary steps toward specifying what peace would look like. The document shows considerable agreement between the parties regarding normalization of relations, including diplomatic and economic ties and tourism. And Syria apparently agreed to an early-warning station on the Golan, though insisting that Israelis could not operate it. The leaked document has left the Syrians anxious to avoid the impression that they have come far in addressing Israeli concerns without being able to claim the Golan.
The reality is that they will have to come much farther. The administration's document shows continued disagreement over water, the timing of normalization and security arrangements. It remains far from clear that Syria's best offer in exchange for one of the world's most strategically valuable pieces of land will be worth the price.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has strongly suggested that he is willing, in exchange for the right combination of arrangements, to give the vast bulk of the Golan back to Syria. His unwillingness to specify exactly how vast may seem like a mirror image of Syria's unwillingness to be specific about peace before being satisfied on its core demand. But the parallel is a false one. Israel is being asked to give up something tangible in exchange for far-less-tangible promises of peace and arrangements designed to make these assurances enforceable. It is perfectly reasonable for Mr. Barak to insist upon knowing the precise quality of both the assurances and the arrangements before promising Syria the one thing its leadership seems to care about.