SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher was due to extend his Middle East tour today and return to Damascus, Syria, in pursuit of a breakthrough in the faltering peace process.
After four days of talks with regional leaders, Mr. Christopher appeared to harbor hopes of breaking the deadlock in Israel's talks with Syria in a second meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He said yesterday those talks were "back on track" after languishing for nearly two years.
Christopher was not alone in sounding upbeat. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said yesterday the United States envoy had brought "certain good news" with him from Damascus, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said earlier he thought Christopher's talks "may salvage the peace process."
The Palestinian delegates were less sure: They held a second meeting with Christopher yesterday, but appeared far from resolving major differences with both Washington and the Israelis.
This week's closed-door meetings, drawn out longer than expected by Christopher's desire to spend each night in Jerusalem (to stay in closer touch with talks on Bosnia in Geneva and Brussels), have allayed concerns that nearly two years of stalemate in Middle East negotiations, and last week's violence in southern Lebanon, might kill the peace process.
"I think the peace process has been salvaged and is back on track," Christopher said yesterday as he emerged from his second meeting with Mr. Rabin in three days. "I have been much impressed with the serious engagement of all the parties we have been meeting with here."
No date has been set for a new round of talks, but it could start by the end of this month, officials here say, in order to get the process moving again before the Jewish holidays in September.
The nature of the "good news" Rabin said Christopher had brought from his talks in Damascus with Mr. Assad was not clear. Christopher apparently was still working to clear the logjam that has snarled Israeli-Syrian talks: Israel's refusal to say how much of the Golan Heights it will cede before Syria explains its vision of peace, and Syria's refusal to give such an explanation before Israel commits itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan.
Similarly, little progress looked likely on the main sticking point in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian delegation was due last night to give Christopher its amended draft of the US-proposed "Declaration of Principles," designed to serve as a basis for future talks with Israel.
Palestinian objections to the current draft of the declaration center on its omission of the status of East Jerusalem, and of any definition of the territory that would be subject to Palestinian rule in an interim autonomy arrangement. But it was not clear how strongly the Palestinians would voice those objections amid serious disagreement between the negotiating team in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Tunis.
Faisal al-Husseini, the Palestinian delegation leader, reportedly refused to deliver the PLO version of the declaration when he met Christopher earlier this week, on the grounds that it made too many concessions to Israel and substituted a different draft. This provoked a sharp reprimand from PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinians' disarray has worsened with the refusal of Haider Abdel-Shafi, head of their negotiating team, to meet Christopher this week, in protest at what he calls Washington's anti-Palestinian policies.
The situation has been further complicated by yesterday's revelation that Yossi Sarid, the left-wing Israeli Minister of the Environment, met top PLO official Nabil Shaath in Cairo 10 days ago. Rabin's spokesman said the prime minister had known in advance of the meeting - the first between an Israeli Cabinet minister and a senior PLO official.
The meeting was the latest in a series of controversial steps the Israeli government has taken toward opening direct talks with the PLO, apparently out of frustration with the slow pace of discussions so far with the Palestinian delegation.