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Barak Enters Syria Talks with Knesset Backing

On December 13, 1999, a majority of the Israeli Knesset voted to support Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to renew peace talks with Syria. The vote, however, was surprisingly close, 47 in favor, 31 against and 24 abstentions, leading observers to predict a difficult fight for approval of any agreement.

The vote came after Barak asked for all parties in the Knesset to support his efforts to bring an end to the 100-year-old conflict. "The future of the country is more important than the politics of the moment," he said.

Among Barak’s 68-member coalition, Shas and two Yisrael Ba'aliya MKs abstained, while the five-member National Religious Party and another two Yisrael Ba'aliya MKs voted against. Opposition support came from Hadash, the United Arab List, and Roman Bronfman's Democratic Choice. Shinui decided to abstain when the party failed to reach a consensus.

Any decision by the government to relinquish sovereign territory requires a majority of 61 MKs, followed by a majority in a referendum. The government announced yesterday its commitment to holding a referendum, which would still require the Knesset to legislate a basic law to establish the practice.

The Prime Minister had more than a dozen phone conversations with President Clinton in recent weeks about the prospects for reactivating the stalled Syrian track. Every conversation between the U.S. president and the Israeli leader was followed up by one between Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Expectations have now been raised that talks beginning December 15, 1999, in Washington between Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa will result in an agreement within a few months. The outline of that agreement, based on prior negotiations between Assad and former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu is believed to include the following:

? The Golan Heights. Israel withdraws almost to the border with Syria that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. The "almost" refers to the section of the Sea of Galilee coastline that was in Syrian hands before the war. Barak refuses to restore that situation, insisting that all of the Sea of Galilee remain under Israeli control. In exchange, he is said to be offering Assad the hot springs at Hamat Gader, at the southernmost point of the Golan.

? Security guarantees. Israel maintains its presence, under American or international auspices, at a key early warning station atop Mount Hermon, located at the northern tip of the Golan. This is to be accompanied by an extensive Syrian demilitarization on the Golan and all the way to Damascus. Israel also agrees to cut back its troops, but on a lesser scale.

? Water. Israel requires guarantees to protect the integrity of its water supply. Any Israeli withdrawal on the Golan will have an immediate impact on Israel's water supply, since it depends on the streams and rivers in the Golan and the Sea of Galilee for 30 percent of its water.

? Terrorism. A commitment from Damascus to shut down Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in Lebanon and Syria is essential to any agreement with Syria. With this commitment in hand, Barak believes that Israel could withdraw from Lebanon without the overriding fear that terrorists
would have a free hand to attack northern Israeli towns.

? Diplomatic ties. The two countries agree to full normalized relations, including embassies, trade and open borders.

? U.S. aid. Both Israel and Syria expect massive infusions of American economic —? and in Israel's case, military —? aid to help cushion the effects of the agreement. 

Sources: JTA, Washington Post, (December 14, 1999); AIPAC