JERUSALEM — BUOYED by his success in arranging a cease-fire in south Lebanon, United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in Cairo today to start a four-day tour to deal with the more-deeply rooted problems besetting the Middle East peace process.
The focus of talks in Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Jordan will be the long-stalled negotiations between Israel and Syria over the future of the Golan Heights, according to diplomats here. The Palestinian issue, bogged down in a myriad of complications, is expected to take a back seat on this trip.
Mr. Christopher has said he does not anticipate any dramatic progress during his visit. But the manner in which Lebanon, Syria, and Israel all agreed to Saturday evening's cease-fire did offer encouraging evidence of their anxiety to remove extraneous roadblocks from the peace process. Peace returned to northern Israel and southern Lebanon under the terms of a cease-fire Christopher brokered by telephone before starting the trip.
Under Syrian pressure, the militant Islamic guerrillas of Hizbullah (Party of God) agreed to stop firing Katyusha rockets at Israeli territory, while Israel called a halt to its week-long aerial and artillery assault on south Lebanon. This arrangement is designed to confine the conflict to Israel's self-declared "security zone" in south Lebanon, and to allow residents on both sides to return to the homes they fled during the fighting.
Syria is expected to continue allowing Hizbullah to receive Iranian weapons through its borders, but President Hafez al-Assad refused to allow Tehran to involve Israel in a full-scale ground war that would have threatened the peace process.
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin was encouraged by this. "I hope there will be a coalition of moderate governments," in the region, he said Sunday in a press conference. "What happened in the last few days may be conducive to a new chapter in this area."
Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have denied some opposition suggestions that he made promises about a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in order to convince Syria to rein in Hizbullah. But the nub of the Golan question remains the same as it has been for several months.
Syria refuses to spell out what kind of peace it would sign until the Israeli government commits itself to a full withdrawal from all Syrian territory occupied in 1967, while Israel refuses to say how much of the Golan Heights it would give up until Syria explains its vision of a peace treaty.
This is the kind of negotiating snarl that might be amenable to hands-on diplomacy by Christopher, and he has strengthened his hand with the cease-fire deal. "A third party can help both of us understand better the inhibitions" each side has, Mr. Beilin said.
It has become clearer than ever that "nothing moves in this region without the Americans," says Yoel Marcus, a commentator with the authoritative Israeli daily Haaretz. "This was Christopher's first real test as an operator and it was successful."
The Palestinians, meanwhile, appear resigned to being sidelined during the visit, given their continuing stalemate with Israel on a US-drafted "declaration of principles." That declaration, offering Palestinians in the occupied lands administrative powers over aspects of their daily life but no territorial jurisdiction, "is still not a basis for negotiations," complains Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks.
The Palestinians have heard no reply to proposals they put last month to Dennis Ross, US coordinator of the talks, on the status of Jerusalem, Dr. Erakat says. He expects Christopher to "talk to us about early empowerment as a way of keeping the questions of territoriality and Jerusalem unanswered."
That approach frustrates Palestinians, whose disillusionment with the Clinton administration is growing. The Americans "keep dealing in terms of what Rabin can or cannot do," Erakat says. "It will take from this administration an ability to see beyond this, because it takes two to make an agreement."