Peace hopes and trial balloons

After nearly disappearing in a cloud of dust raised by Israel's planned confiscation of Arab land in East Jerusalem, the peace balloon is sailing once again.

And now it's hovering over the Golan Heights.

Like so much of recent Middle East history, peace hopes are riding temporarily on trial balloons floated in the Israeli and world media as the Jewish state and Syria jockey for bargaining positions.

In the past few days, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would go to a plebiscite before Israel ceded an inch of the hills. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Washington Post that Syrian President Hafez Assad is anxious to deal with Rabin before Israeli elections — just in case Rabin will lose to more hardline candidates.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Syrian military and diplomatic officials will be meeting in Washington to debate fine points of a peace treaty and normalization of relations, reportedly including an Israeli agreement to back off demands for symmetrical security arrangements between the two sides after an Israeli pullout from the Golan.

Aside from the universal desire for peace, we wonder whether this is a peace process worth cheering wholeheartedly. Though Israel has certainly negotiated and made peace with the likes of formerly detested enemies such as Yasser Arafat, the Jewish state has much more at stake now in dealing with Syria.

Consider the Golan — a rugged, volcanic plateau from which Syrian forces once sat and virtually took target practice at Israelis below. Israel has fought two bloody battles in the heights to ensure that the Jewish state never again be so vulnerable, and Israel's national psyche is tied closely to that comfort level.

Israelis are going to have to feel real trust that Syria's intentions are honorable, and that it is not trying to attain diplomatically what it could not militarily.

In the final analysis, it is up to Assad to be a world class leader such as Jordan's King Hussein, move out of his hardline crouch and show that he means peace. Assad must do more than float trial media blimps aimed at staking out firmer ground.

He must show Jews they need not fear that Scud missiles will rain from nearby hills.