ISRAEL is adopting a "Syria first" strategy in the Arab-Israeli peace process as the Palestinians remain undecided about whether to return to the negotiating table when Middle East peace talks resume next month.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, visiting the Clinton White House for the first time today, will seek enhanced strategic cooperation with the United States to ease Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Israeli sources say.
President Clinton is expected to press for details on just how much of the Golan Israel is willing to relinquish to Syria as part of a peace accord.
But Mr. Clinton also appears eager to resolve the Palestinian impasse and will seek a new Israeli commitment to expedite the return of the remaining 396 Palestinians deported to Lebanon last December and improve living conditions in the occupied territories.
"There is no question that Rabin's peace strategy has totally changed and it is now Syria first," declares Dore Gold, a strategic analyst at Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Affairs.
"Things are moving positively ahead with the Syrians, less so with the Palestinians," says Oded Ben Ami, Mr. Rabin's media adviser. "We really hope that we will achieve an agreement [with Syria] by the end of this year or the beginning of 1994."
Such statements contrast sharply with those made last spring during the Israeli election campaign when Rabin predicted an accord with the Palestinians within a year, but said that the peace process with Syria would take much longer.
Rabin apparently is holding out for a Syrian commitment for full peace and normalization of ties before he presents any concrete proposals for either partial or total withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Syria will not consider a normalization of diplomatic relations prior to a full Israeli withdrawal, Israeli sources say.
That remains the Israeli-Syrian deadlock that the US will address in today's meeting and in upcoming talks. If US mediation succeeds, the framework for an Israeli-Syrian settlement could be forthcoming in the next one or two rounds of peace talks. The next phase is scheduled to open in Washington April 20.
One of the main issues Rabin will raise with Clinton will be direct Israeli access to US military satellites and US AWACS radar aircraft based in Saudi Arabia to compensate for the ground-based early warning systems Israel now has in the Golan Heights to monitor troop and air force movements deep inside Syrian territory.
Syrian leaders and press commentators also reflect an eagerness to resume the peace talks. "For years, the Syrian newspapers talked mainly about war, the struggle against Israel, and the strategic balance," says Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, who follows the Arabic press. "Now ... they also are talking about land for peace and the benefits peace would bring."
Incremental shifts in the Syrian position are noted with great interest here. Last week, for instance, Radio Monte Carlo reported that Syrian Foreign Minster Farouk al-Sharaa, in a meeting with officials in Cairo, said Syria is now prepared to accept a staged Israeli withdrawal from the Golan over a period of eight years.
The report received no Syrian confirmation. But an official Israeli source gave it credence, saying: "Damascus is telling everyone that as long as Israel agrees to a total withdrawal, Syria is willing to allow it to be carried out in stages."
Concern over the deportee issue increased last week after the Palestinian delegation refused to accept the US-Russian invitation to the April 20 talks.
In Israeli press interviews last week, Haider Abdel-Shafi, the chief Palestinian negotiator, listed two key conditions for returning to the talks: the return of all the deportees by June rather than December and an Israeli promise to abandon the practice of deportations.
The official Syrian daily Al Baath yesterday urged Clinton to pressure Rabin on the deportee crisis. Lebanon and Syria held a summit Saturday in Damascus, in part to solidify their demands that Israeli implement United Nations Resolution 799, which calls for the return of the deportees. But there was no indication that either state would boycott the talks over the issue. Farouk Kaddoumi, a top Palestine Liberation Organization official, conceded last week that Syria and Lebanon might resume negotiations without the Palestinians.
Privately, government sources say that Israel has not closed the door to an expedited return of the deportees. But two weeks of almost daily incidents of Palestinian stabbings and shootings of Israeli civilians have exacerbated Rabin's internal political difficulties in offering new Israeli concessions on the deportee issue.
Israeli officials complain that the Palestinians have ignored its concessions, including the Feb. 1 offer to repatriate 101 deportees immediately and return the rest by December. "Rabin believes it is futile to come up with an initiative to return any more deportees unless he gets something in return," one Israeli source says. "If the US can broker some kind of quid pro quo ... then I think we will be more forthcoming."