Prime Minister Ehud Barak, heading for the first-ever high-level talks between Israelis and Syrians, warned a divided public and wary lawmakers today that the Jewish state must be prepared to pay a heavy price for peace.
In blunt remarks to his cabinet and a speech to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, the prime minister left little doubt he will agree to hand back the strategic Golan Heights to Syria in return for security guarantees.
Speaking directly to the 17,000 Israeli residents of the Golan, he said: "I can't tell you an agreement will be reached without a high price. The price will be one our generation will pay on behalf of future generations--an end to the bloodshed and to be able to look them in the eye and say that we did all we could to prevent the next war."
Barak leaves Tuesday for Washington, where two days of peace talks are scheduled with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa starting Wednesday. His initiative received a tepid endorsement from the Knesset, with 47 members voting for the talks, 31 against, 24 abstaining and 18 absent. In a warning sign for the future stability of Barak's government, two parties in his own coalition, representing Russian-speaking immigrants and settlers, voted to oppose the talks, and a another, commanding 17 seats and representing Sephardic Jews, abstained.
The seven-hour Knesset debate was the curtain raiser on what is likely to be months of emotional argument culminating in Israel's first national referendum. The question is whether to swap a region that many Israelis love--and that is barely larger than Fairfax County--for peace with an armed, autocratic and inscrutable neighbor that many Israelis distrust.
In the five days since President Clinton announced the resumption of talks between the two sides, that question has already provoked shock, hope and public shouting matches among Israelis, as well as a 7 percent rise in the Tel Aviv stock market.
Barak tried to soften the blow by reminding Israeli residents of the Golan that he had fought to capture the region as a young soldier in the 1967 Middle East War and had lost friends on the battlefield there. He praised the residents for building lives, homes, orchards and industries on the region's "beautiful landscape." He met with their representatives hours before leaving for Washington.
"My heart is with you," he said hoarsely in the Knesset, ignoring a case of the flu as well as hecklers in the opposition. "This is a very difficult hour for you."
Following Barak's speech, Ariel Sharon, leader of the rightist opposition Likud party, went to the lectern, his central role in the debate imbued with an irony lost on no one in the chamber. It was Sharon who, as defense minister, led the wrenching, at times violent, evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 in accordance with an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Consciously or not, Sharon seemed eager to draw a distinction between the evacuation he led and the one he now opposes. "Remember, we are dealing with a totalitarian regime, a cruel dictator, a tyrant," he said of Syrian President Hafez Assad. "No one knows who will control Syria [after Assad's death]. . . . We could end up without peace and without the Golan."
He added: "I've never seen such a declaration of surrender in my life."
An agreement between Israel and Syria may be months away, at the earliest, but already the internal Israeli debate has begun in earnest. Polls suggest the public is split about evenly on swapping the Golan for peace, while in the Golan itself, residents are organizing, raising funds and drafting battle plans to defeat any Israeli withdrawal--or, as they put it, a giveaway of their homes.
The immediate point of conflict is over the referendum on territorial withdrawal, which is required by law--how to phrase the proposition in question, how to finance the campaign that will precede it and how to count the votes.
There is talk that Barak may enlist James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Bob Shrum, the American political consultants who guided his successful election campaign last spring, to help the government win the referendum. Wary of being outclassed again at the polls, the opposition is talking about bringing in its own American advisers.
Right-wingers who oppose giving up the Golan insist that a simple majority should not suffice for such a momentous decision. They say no territory should be ceded unless 60 percent of voters support a pullback.
Not coincidentally, their insistence on a higher hurdle for approval could also offset the voting clout of Israeli Arabs, who make up about a sixth of the electorate and who are likely to vote overwhelmingly for any peace deal with Syria. The attorney general has condemned talk of offsetting the Arab vote or raising the threshold for approval.
"The referendum threatens to wreck friendships and tear apart families," the newspaper Haaretz declared.
Peace with Syria is more than an abstract notion here. As a regional power, Syria controls much of what goes on in Lebanon, so it is generally assumed that a peace treaty with Damascus holds the promise of ending Israel's two-decade-old war of attrition in southern Lebanon. About 25 to 30 Israeli soldiers die each year in Lebanon, where Israel maintains a self-declared security zone.
"We shouldn't miss this opportunity" for peace, said Barak. "Missing it could cost us in blood."
Yet there is profound skepticism here, and not only among far right-wingers, about whether Syria is sufficiently stable and reliable to uphold an agreement with Israel.
"We're talking about the [return] of one of the most strategic pieces of territory and putting it under control of one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world," said Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who serves as Barak's interior minister.
Although Sharansky abstained in the voting today, the other members of his Russian immigrants' party voted against talks with Syria. Both his party and the National Religious Party, which represents Jewish settlers, have threatened to withdraw from Barak's government in the event of a pullback from the Golan.
Even members of Barak's own Labor Party acknowledged they find Assad unfathomable. "I know nothing about him, and I know very few people who know him intimately," said Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a former senior Israeli diplomat. If a deal is reached, he added, Assad "is going to have to give up something very dear to him--not Lebanon, or security, or negotiations. It's his hatred for Israel."
CAPTION: Israeli peace activists wave signs during a rally in Jerusalem to demonstrate support for Prime Minister Ehud Barak.