JERUSALEM — WITH the Mideast peace talks expected to resume at the end of the month, Israel appears more interested in encouraging US shuttle diplomacy in the region than in sending its delegation back to Washington, some Israeli officials indicate.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's intervention in last month's crisis between Israel and Syrian-backed guerrillas in southern Lebanon gave a boost to the Israel-Syria track in the peace talks, aides to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin say.
But tensions persist, underscoring the need for more such US diplomacy, they say. The pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God), which has long vowed to sabotage the peace process, killed eight Israeli soldiers and wounded four others yesterday in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon.
The attack was the most lethal against Israeli troops there since 1988, but it did not appear to violate tacit agreements brokered last month by Mr. Christopher among Mr. Rabin, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It showed that the pro-Iranian Hizbullah was still able to strike at patrols, and that Syria apparently is in no hurry to reduce pressure on Israeli forces inside Lebanese territory.
Israeli officials express hope that talks scheduled to begin on Aug. 31 will serve as a prelude for further efforts by Christopher in the region, particularly on the Israeli-Syria track.
The Rabin government's advocacy of increased US shuttle diplomacy apparently stems from simple calculation. With the US deeply involved, Syria and the other Arab negotiating partners - Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians - will have to take into account their vital relations with Washington when they consider peace with Israel.
Since the process began in Madrid in 1991, Syria has made no discernable gestures toward Israel's demand that it specify the nature of peace arrangements before land transfers are discussed.
Israel wants Damascus to specify first whether it intends a full peace, including exchange of ambassadors. Referring to Syria's demand that Israel say whether it intends to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, annexed in the 1967 war, deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin said "the chicken and the egg problem should be solved by the Americans."
Rabin said this week he believed opportunities for breaking the impasse were increasing.
"I cannot prove it, I only hear it from the Americans who serve as a go-between because the face-to-face negotiations with the delegation are on too low a level to reach a conclusion." He said further "deep involvement" by Washington was a prerequisite for progress.
"It was not a coincidence that the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state was not signed in the Middle East but on the lawn of the White House," Rabin said, referring to the 1979 treaty signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.
Officials in Jerusalem say they expect either Christopher or his top Middle East aide, Dennis Ross, to return to the region after the 11th round. Rabin, in what may have been a signal to both Assad and Christopher, also said this week that Jewish settlements in the occupied Golan Heights posed a security liability and hinted they might be sacrificed in peace arrangements. During the 1973 war, Rabin said, the settlements "interfered with the activity of our military forces" against Syria on the heights.
To facilitate a heightened US role, Israel would be willing to accept statements of peaceful intent made by Assad to Christopher as a trigger for specifying the withdrawal rather than the public Syrian declarations previously demanded, officials say.
By offering to trade land it has occupied since the 1967 war for peace, Israel has not only created a well-spring of goodwill with the Clinton administration but also provided some tools for Christopher's diplomacy. The warm ties contrast sharply with the acrimony that prevailed between Rabin's predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, and former Secretary of State James Baker III.
Rabin has learned to trust the Clinton administration. In February, when Israel faced international sanctions for its deportation to Lebanon of 415 suspected militants, Christopher brokered a compromise with Rabin that called for the return of 101 of the deportees immediately and the remainder by the end of 1993.
The cease-fire last month came after Israel's week-long bombardment against Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon in retaliation for the killing of 5 Israeli soldiers. Christopher shuttled between Israel and Syria, the main power in Lebanon, to broker the accord.
Assad provides the most appealing peace option right now in Israel's view, because Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and negotiators from the Israeli-occupied territories are deeply divided. Three leading negotiators, Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi, and Saeb Erakat have yet to settle differences with Mr. Arafat over negotiating strategy.
But there is no assurance that Washington can sway Assad to move toward a separate peace with Israel without progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, given the pan-Arab saliency of the Palestinian cause.
Guy Behor, an analyst for the Ha'aretz newspaper, suggested yesterday that much of the optimism about Assad was out of place. There have been no signs of a spillover effect on the peace process from the Lebanon cease-fire, he wrote. Its achievement, according to Behor, was simply to stop the rocket attacks.
"No diplomatic or political bonuses for Israel were tacked on to this understanding, and looking back it appears that the operation did not bring recognizable changes in the alignment of Arab forces, militarily or diplomatically," he wrote.