Israeli leaders see a potential breakthrough with Syria following a speech on 10 September by Syrian President Asad interpreted by Israel as meaning he is ready for a normalisation of relations. Speculation over a possible deal led to a row in the Israeli knesset (parliament) and protests by Israeli settlers in the occupied Golan Heights.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres on 11 September hailed remarks by Asad to the Syrian parliament in which the latter called for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan but expressed his willingness to work for peace. Peres told Israel radio he was encouraged by the general tone of the speech.

‘He (Asad) said he has a strategy of peace and there were more than hints that he understands peace truly means peace, that is to say normalisation of relations,’ Peres said.

An unofficial translation of the text of Asad’s speech quotes him as saying: ‘We really want peace and we are aware and we realise that everybody has an interest in this peace.’ Asad adds: ‘I stress once again that Syria is aware of the peace process and the importance of peace, which guarantees complete withdrawal. Syria is also aware that peace has objective requirements. These requirements are not alien to peace. Syria shall meet the objective requirements of peace that are agreed upon.’

The 13,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan, who had started a protest when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin had in early September disclosed a proposal for a two-stage pullback from the Golan similar to that from the Sinai in 1979, stepped up their protests with mass rallies and a hunger strike after Peres’ remarks. In the knesset, Rabin walked out of a debate on 13 September after rowdy scenes and personal insults.