In one of the first significant agreements in more than three years of talks, Israel and Syria have decided upon a first stage of security arrangements to accompany an eventual Israeli pullback from the strategic Golan Heights, the State Department announced Tuesday.
The agreement brings the two countries, enemies for more than four decades, a small step closer to a formal peace treaty and to ending the state of war between Israel and the most hard-line of the neighboring Arab states.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher called the agreement an “important development,” and aides said he would soon travel to the Middle East to try to maintain the momentum in the talks. Senior military officials from both Israel and Syria are scheduled to visit Washington by the end of next month to complete negotiations on the security arrangements.
Syria did not issue a public statement, but Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch, called the deal “a positive and important development.”
Egypt and Jordan already have peace treaties with Israel. Lebanon, which is largely controlled by Syria, is expected to reach agreement with Israel once Syria has done so.
Christopher said in a statement that the two countries had agreed to “a set of understandings.” Officials here cautioned that those understandings do not fix in detail the security arrangements necessary to prevent one side from attacking the other, once Israel pulls back from the Golan Heights.
But they do break an impasse that had stalled negotiations since military chiefs of staff from the two countries last met in Washington in December. Any agreement, no matter how modest, would probably have been politically impossible for Syria as recently as last week, when Arab states were in an uproar over Israel’s planned seizure of Palestinian-owned land in East Jerusalem.
That controversy eased Monday, when the Israeli government abruptly suspended the land confiscation.
Although officials declined to provide details, the understandings are believed to be a step toward the goal of President Hafez Assad of Syria of a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. They were agreed upon during negotiations between Israeli and Syrian ambassadors - with American mediation - that followed separate visits to Washington by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Foreign Minister Farouk alSharaa of Syria.