Israel is on the road to Damascus

 

When Israel went to the polls in 1996, Avigdor Kahalani, a tank commander decorated for bravery on the Syrian front during the 1973 Arab-Israel war, won four seats in the Knesset.

His party, the Third Way, had a straightforward platform: it vowed to resist any effort to relinquish the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967, even at the cost of scuppering all hope of a peace deal to bring normal relations between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.

Mr Kahalani has proved a fairly effective politician over the past three years. At his urging, the Knesset has passed legislation requiring the support of 61 or more members of parliament for territorial compromise on the Golan, a mountain ridge that affords a strategic view deep into Syria to the north and Israel to the south.

At his urging, too, legislation is taking shape that would require a nation-wide referendum to approve a land-for-peace deal there.

In short, Mr Kahalani and the Third Way proved themselves effective and dedicated defenders of their cause, and had every reason to believe the Golan loyalists who had voted for them last time would support them again last week.

But they got a rude awakening. The Third Way did not merely fail to hold its four seats in last week's vote, it was erased from the parliamentary map.

Perhaps even more astoundingly, residents of the Golan Heights themselves not only deserted the Third Way in droves, a majority of them voted for Mr Ehud Barak, the prime ministerial candidate openly committed to trading Golan land for peace, over Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister who had resisted such a compromise.

Mr Barak's aides have described this dramatic shift in position as amounting to a recognition by Israelis who live on the Golan, and their compatriots nation-wide, that part or all of the Heights will have to be restored to the rule of President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus, if Israel is to complete the "circle of peace" and forge treaties with Syria and Lebanon.

And to utilise that shift, some aides are now saying, Mr Barak - once he has completed his coalition negotiations and been sworn in as prime minister in the next few weeks - may decide to make peace talks with Syria and Lebanon a higher priority than talks with Mr Yasser Arafat's Palestinians.

In several speeches since his victory, Mr Barak has recommitted himself to a pre-election pledge to withdraw Israel's soldiers from their so-called "security zone" in southern Lebanon within the year. Mr Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of Mr Barak's most senior Labour Party colleagues, confirmed this week that the prime minister-elect was utterly determined to meet that commitment.

And since Mr Barak has no plans to pull out the troops unilaterally, and since Syria dictates Lebanese policy on Israel, it is clear he plans a speedy resumption of negotiations with Syria, involving the return of the Golan. These talks stalled throughout the Netanyahu years.

Reacting last week to Mr Barak's success, Syrian state media suggested dryly that the new prime minister "might not differ in any way from his predecessor." But by Tuesday that scepticism had changed. In the wake of reported private messages exchanged via third parties, an official Syrian statement spoke of Damascus's desire to quickly resume the peace talks from the point at which they broke off under the last Labour government.

Since there is a major disagreement between Israel and Syria over where exactly that point was, the path to a speedy resumption of talks is not smooth. But Labour sources hint that a formula to bridge that disagreement is now being drafted, and indicate, too, that the private messages from Damascus have been deeply encouraging.

Mr Barak, as Israel's army chiefof-staff, was involved in previous efforts to forge a peace treaty with Damascus, and evidently believes an accord is attainable. The growing public clamour for a withdrawal from Lebanon, where Israeli losses in the mini-war with Hizbullah continue to mount, provides a powerful incentive. And even some army commanders are now publicly declaring their desire for a diplomatic solution to put them out of their military misery.

Mr Avigdor Kahalani's venture into politics was designed to bolster Israeli public support for the retention of the Golan. The voters' rejection of him last week almost amounts to the referendum for which he had been agitating; a referendum that says Yes to a deal returning the Golan to Syria, because that, in turn, would see Israel's soldiers coming home.