Israel, Syria appear to be taking peace more seriously

JERUSALEM — The possibility of peace between Israel and Syria moved a step closer to reality this week.

In a development seen as a major step forward, Syria announced its readiness to accept the presence of surveillance stations on the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal from the area.

However, the Syrian position is that such stations cannot be staffed by Israeli personnel, but by what Syrian officials call "international or friendly forces."

Syria's move this week appeared to confirm a growing impression that the peace process — on the Syrian track as well as the Palestinian one — is progressing faster than the media would have us believe.

Syria's position, which aired Monday on a Damascus-based radio broadcast, is seen as a sharp reversal. Syria previously rejected land-based surveillance of any kind on its soil.

The position assumes an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace accord with Syria.

Should Israel agree to the withdrawal, Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Hadam said this week that peace could come in 10 days.

Hadam's statement — recorded in an interview Monday with the Lebanese daily A-Safir — and Syria's agreement on surveillance stations came hours before the Clinton administration's special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, began a shuttle visit to Jerusalem and Damascus.

Ross met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and top aides and military officers Monday evening in Jerusalem. Ross flew to Damascus Tuesday.

Ross was working to arrange talks between senior Israeli and Syrian military officers in Washington later this month. These negotiations would follow three days of talks between the two countries' chiefs of staff — Israeli Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak and his Syrian counterpart, Hikmat Shihabi — there in late June.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is reportedly planning a shuttle of his own in late July or early August — and that would be followed, assuming all is still on course, by a round of military and civilian negotiations in Washington later in August.

Israeli sources, meanwhile, believe Syria's changed position on surveillance signals its apparent resolve to hasten the peace process.

The Clinton administration has cautioned both sides that the "window of opportunity" for reaching a breakthrough in negotiations will close in late 1995, given that 1996 is an election year both in the United States and Israel.

Israeli sources said Syria has indicated in the past that it was prepared to accept American or other internationally staffed surveillance facilities on the Golan. But it later backed away from that position and adopted a more inflexible stance, rejecting all ground-based facilities on the Golan as an infringement on Syrian sovereignty.

Similarly, these sources said, Syria appears now to be returning to an earlier position — recently dropped in favor of a harder line — that recognized Israel's demand for deeper demilitarized and limitation-of-forces zones on the Syrian side of the border than on the Israeli side.

Israel says the region's topography — once the Golan is returned — would award Syria the advantage and so would justify deeper security restraints on the Syrian side.

The surveillance issue provides clues that the peace process may be moving faster than reported.

There was no indication in the Israeli media, after the recent talks between the chiefs of staff in Washington, that the land-based surveillance stations had become a viable proposition again.

Similarly, an imminent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the second phase of Palestinian self-rule seems to have surprised the Israeli and Palestinian media.

While reporters focused on the missed July 1 deadline for reaching an agreement to extend Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank, negotiators for both sides apparently have been working behind the scenes to ensure a signing ceremony before the month's end.

Large delegations from both sides were due to meet this week at an undisclosed site in Italy. It was to be an intensive effort — far from the media spotlight — to bridge remaining gaps.

Several issues, including the following, remain unresolved:

*Arrangements for Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem to stand for office and to vote in Palestinian elections.

*Arrangements for joint patrols and separate police work in rural West Bank areas once the Israel Israeli army has redeployed from most of the main Palestinian towns there.

*Control of water resources in the West Bank.

Rabin confirmed progress by the two sides Monday.

"There is no going back on the agreement," Rabin told a delegation of West Bank Jewish settlers who were meeting with him to review the evolving accord.

Rabin said the Israeli army would do its utmost to provide security for the West Bank's 120,000 Jewish residents, and said the pact seeks to avoid any contact between settlers and members of the Palestinian police force.