JIM LEHRER: The new round of Israel/Syria peace talks. We get our update from David Makovsky, executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and Hisham Melhem, correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, As-Safir. Is it your impression that matters remain, in general terms, that matters remain on track for a mission?
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. This time the focus is going to be on the details, last time the talks in general terms to set up the agenda and to define the issues of contention. This time they brought with them the advisors, technicians, military people to discuss in details and in depth, border issues, border demarcation, legal issues, normalization, economics and what not. It is -- the focus is going to be on those issues.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David, that nothing has happened since the Blair House meetings here in December to change the momentum toward a deal?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: That's correct, I think there is political certainly on the Israeli side, I think on the Syrian side, the basic parameters are basically known, but the devil is in the details and there are differences.
JIM LEHRER: Staying to the general for a moment, we'll get to the details, what about the politics from Barak's point of view? Have they changed any since he was here? Are the people of Israel behind him basically?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think there is a general perception that a deal is in the works and that somehow the details will be ironed out. And now they're already talking about the politics of can Barak win a referendum to gain public approval, and that -
JIM LEHRER: Which he has to do.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Which he has to do. He has committed himself to do it.
JIM LEHRER: He's committed himself to do it, right.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: And that is very unclear because at the core it comes down to one idea -- which is that the public needs to be convinced in Israel that the peace that they're going to receive from Syria is every bit as tangible and irreversible as the land they are going to yield, and that they are not convinced of yet.
JIM LEHRER: So that - I mean, that's where matters stand; they're still skeptical?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: That's the key, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, the Syrian, what is the Syrian momentum at this point, Hisham?
HISHAM MELHEM: Syrians came here with the first item on the agenda is withdrawal and maybe security arrangement. The Israelis came to Shepherds Town - the first item on the agenda is normalization. And that's why both of them came here with different priorities let's say. And they will iron out the differences now. It is still possible to say that this thing is not 100% sure. It's not tight enough. And things could crumble. And that's why today, for instance, one of the main issues that was discussed was to set up the agenda and also try to define what is going to be the American role in these talks. The Syrians would like the Americans to be in the room. The Israelis would like the Americans to be in an adjacent room, intervening only if the situation requires that.
JIM LEHRER: So they want the Americans, the Syrians want the Americans to actually preside over the meetings?
HISHAM MELHEM: Preside, yeah, preside, open the meetings, take notes, to be a witness, and that's why they will tell you in 1996 or 1994 rather, when Rabin gave the Syrians some sort of a pledge that he withdraw to the June 4th border, 1967, he did that through the Americans. There always need to be American witness to these talks. And that's why the American role has been very crucial.
JIM LEHRER: And it's your understanding that has not been resolved yet?
HISHAM MELHEM: Hasn't been resolved -- I just came --
JIM LEHRER: You just came from Shepherds Town.
HISHAM MELHEM: Yes.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think where I would differ just a bit from Hisham here is that Rabin spoke of the idea of withdrawal but it was clearly pending security arrangements and water and some of these other difficulties which have to be ironed out. The Syrians have to -- there was an agreement. Now it's ridiculous to believe -
HISHAM MELHEM: Actually the Syrians would agree that one reason, for instance, Assad did not jump on the agreement is that because they hadn't settled one of the main issues concerning the security agreements which is the fate of the Israeli spy station or monitoring station on the Golan.
JIM LEHRER: Security -
HISHAM MELHEM: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Let's go back to what they're talking about now and you say the devil is in the details.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right.
JIM LEHRER: What is the most devilish detail that has to be worked out?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think Hisham is right; one of them is Mount Herman, the early warning station.
JIM LEHRER: Explain why that is important -
DAVID MAKOVSKY: And it's also linked to the deployment of Syrian armor formation on the Golan. It's all really the same issue. It comes down to this: Syria has a larger standing army than Israel. Israel is based on a citizen's army of reserves. Now to call up reserves when there is a surprise attack takes 48 hours. So, therefore, you have to got to configure a deal that if the Syrians all of a sudden make a surprise attack it will take them 48 hours to cross over into Israel. If their formation is right up there or if you are kind of blinded because you don't have access to early warning, they could just cut right through you. So you want to have a situation that (A), you have early warning capability and (B), that their armor formation, their offensive units are far enough from the Golan that Israel can mobilize when it has to. It is at that disadvantage, where Israel is at, and those are why those two issues are key. But they all linked to the same point.
JIM LEHRER: They're all the same issue.
HISHAM MELHEM: Speaking of offensive, I mean, the Syrians see it as very offensive in the extreme.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
HISHAM MELHEM: To allow Israelis to man a spy station on the highest mountain in the Golan, a spy station that can monitor moments in everybody's bedroom down in Damascus which is less than 55 miles away -- kilometers, rather -- to monitor the phones, to monitor everybody's agreement. I mean, in the age of missiles, in the age of other ways of early warning, the satellites and what not, this is really an obsolete form of early warning. The Israeli army, everybody in Israel - a study recently said that the Israeli -- Syrian army is not powerful enough to threaten Israel. So the people who are involved in security issues in Israel will tell you publicly nowadays that the Syrian army is not a threat to Israel.
JIM LEHRER: But the whole assumption here, David, is still that there may be war. I mean, these are two enemies sitting down to try to negotiate how to handle a war, rather than how to handle a peace, am I right about that?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, that's correct, but people have to prepare for like the worst case scenario. I would - some of the details - but I want to go backward -- to answer your question, I think that there is a lack of trust here. These people have been enemies for 50 years, Syria has been Israel's most implacable foe. I mean, even little gestures, like when Rabin died, to send a condolence card to his wife, or when there's a Palestinian terrorist attack, to condemn it - little things - and they can't bring themselves to do that or Assad hasn't brought himself to visit Israel or to lay out his vision of peace -- it makes people skeptical saying this is the same Syria that shelled Israeli Kibbutzim in Mosheim from 1948 to 1967. And we have --
HISHAM MELHEM: What is that? Look, even the Israelis themselves will admit now that in most cases -- almost 80% of the time when the clashes occurred between Syria and Israel from 1949 to 1967 were because of Israeli encroachment on the demilitarized zone. And the Israelis always wanted to take over the demilitarized zone - that issue. But the point is, yes, these are implacable areas. Yes, this is not going to be immediately a warm peace. We are not going to embrace and fall in love with each other. International relations are not based on love; they are based on legal, contractual agreements, and the Syrians have shown -- regardless of what they think of their government, regardless of they think of their regime, they have shown that they, when they commit themselves to agreements, they stick by those agreements, and the United States is going to be a guarantor. There is no Soviet Union now -
JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, the United States is going to be a guarantor? How does it guarantee anything?
HISHAM MELHEM: The United States is going to foot the bill for the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, so you and I as good taxpayers are going to foot the bill for the Israelis, who build the settlements knowing for years that these are illegal settlements on illegally occupied territories, but the United States also is going to create as they call a structure of peace, relations, guarantees, for the military of both countries. I mean, they could probably provide intelligence for the two countries at the same time.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, the CIA -
HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Israel - and Palestinians -
HISHAM MELHEM: Monitor from the satellites, movements of troops - I mean, there are many ways, if you put your creative minds to it - it's not really beyond that. When the Syrians said that peace is our strategic option, they meant that. The only difference is these are not like Egyptians or Jordanians - they were not willing at this stage to engage in this public diplomacy, public gestures before they get back their territory. Call it national pride, call it history, call it legacy of conflict -
JIM LEHRER: This matter is -- this matter deeply to Israelis -
DAVID MAKOVSKY: The public part is crucial. It's also the notion that Syria always kept its word. People have to realize something. You have the Golan Border who has been quiet all these years, as Hisham hinted, but the fact is by remote control Syria has allowed shipments to Damascus Airport - to Hezbollah, Islamic guerrillas, and been blowing up Israeli soldiers since 1982. I mean, the point is, is one of Barak's reasons for doing the deal was to do a Syria-Lebanon package - was to hopefully change the region in the direction of peace. And no one has believed that all of a sudden that Assad has become a lover of Zion. But there are strategic reasons for doing the deal. I said that -- Barak is not doing it because he thinks that. My point is that the level of suspicion relates not to public statements but it relates to the fact Israelis have been blown up in Lebanon now for 17 years and that Assad is not really clean. He can say my Golan border is fine but by remote control to these arms shipments blow up Israel and Lebanon, so -
JIM LEHRER: All right.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: -- if he didn't kill you in New York, he kills you in New Jersey. The point is, if you want to do the deal - I don't want to make it sound like -- Barak will have support of the Israeli public for a deal will lead to regional peace, It's just skepticism to be overcome, but I think he has a vision -
HISHAM MELHEM: You made the Israeli army in South Lebanon, which is an occupying army, as a bunch of revelers engaged --
JIM LEHRER: You have provided a great public service this evening. You have demonstrated - for our audience at least -- how difficult it's going to be.
HISHAM MELHEM: It's not impossible.
JIM LEHRER: How long is it going to take?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it will be possible. It might not be this round or next round. I think it will be done in short order in the next couple of months, because Barak needs to have a referendum; he needs to galvanize it. These things drag down into these details and the momentum is lost. That will hurt him for referendum and also he has got an agreement also set with the Palestinians for February 13. He would like, I think, these two things to converge and go to referendum on both.
HISHAM MELHEM: I think it can be done within six months.
JIM LEHRER: Six months?
HISHAM MELHEM: Yes. I think it can be done within six months, because most of the issues have been discussed. Everybody knows each other's positions on this -
JIM LEHRER: If we can get you two guys to agree on the history leading up to this we'll be in fine shape. Thank you both very much. Thank you.