Syria Holds Off Direct Israel Talks For Better Deal

AS Jordan's King Hussein and Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met in Washington yesterday to end the state of war between the two countries, there were no indications that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would follow suit - at least in the near future.

According to various Arab sources, by holding out longer than the Palestinians and Jordanians, Mr. Assad is positioning himself for a better deal regarding the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and United States and Israeli recognition of Syria's influence in Lebanon.

Syria has already accused the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan of ``abandoning coordination,'' succumbing to Israeli attempts to split the Arab countries by signing separate agreements and ending the state of belligerency with Israel.

Assad stresses solution

But Assad on Sunday did not directly attack Jordan or King Hussein. Instead he stressed that Syria remained committed to a comprehensive solution for the Israeli-Arab conflict.

He indicated, however, that the Syrian-Israeli talks have not foundered but were facing obstacles. ``We cannot say that the peace process has reached a dead end, but we also cannot say that the peace process is on an open road,'' he told journalists accompanying Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who apparently failed to convince Assad to meet publicly with Israeli leaders.

Syria has so far refused to take any step to ``normalize'' its relations with Israel on any level, demanding an Israeli commitment to withdraw from all of the strategic Golan Heights that was captured by Israel in 1967.

Israel has offered a phased, eight-year withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for normalized relations with Syria.

According to recent Arab press reports, Syria turned down a proposal by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher for a two-part Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to take place in less than Israel's proposed eight years, but in more than the one-year time span that Damascus insists upon.

Arab political analysts say Assad believes that if he meets publicly with Israeli leaders, Syria will essentially give Israel the acceptance in the Arab world it wants without it completely withdrawing from the Golan Heights.

Syrian officials argue that the PLO and Jordan were not able to attain their goals by conceding to Israeli demands to upgrade the level of public meetings.

Jordan's public meeting

King Hussein only agreed to meet with Mr. Rabin publicly after Israel accepted for the first time that Jordan had territorial and water rights in the border areas. In return, Jordan became the first Arab country since Egypt in 1979 to host Israelis publicly on its soil.

But the negotiations that were held last week at the Jordanian-Israeli border area did not produce a real breakthrough, and Jordan is still demanding an Israeli commitment to withdraw from 140 square miles of land along the border it captured in the 1970s and full recognition of Jordan's water rights.

Jordanian political analysts now fear that Israel has no intention of recognizing Jordanian sovereignty over the contested land, especially now that the US is instead encouraging joint Israeli-Jordanian ventures in the two northern and southern strips.

Although Israel has accepted the principle of negotiating water allocations for Jordan, Israeli negotiators have told Jordan that the kingdom could have access to the water through joint projects only. So, they say, although Jordan has agreed to end the state of belligerency, a peace treaty will not follow immediately.

In the case of Syria, however, analysts point out that Damascus will have to concede to other US and Israeli conditions that are tied to a peace treaty. Arab sources close to Damascus say that Assad faces a serious problem accepting Israeli demands to cut down the size and restructure the Syrian Army.

``The regime is very dependent on a huge military and security apparatus. Assad will alienate many power centers if he does that,'' says a political analyst who recently visited Damascus.

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