Middle East Peace Train Slows on Israel-Syria Track

Both sides are cautious about moving too quickly after PLO accord

AN EARLY breakthrough in Israeli-Syrian peace talks seems increasingly unlikely, despite diplomatic efforts by Egypt and the United States.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad arrived in Cairo yesterday for two days of discussions with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, who promised Israel he would try to persuade the Syrian leader to negotiate a peace deal with the Jewish state.

But both Israel and Syria are wary of moving too quickly in the wake of last week's historic accord between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), analysts say.

``The Syrians are less likely right now to make an agreement,'' says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank on the Middle East. ``Assad doesn't want to be the tail to [PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat's dog.''

For Israel, progress on the Syrian track would mean further territorial concessions at a time when Israelis are still adjusting to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's agreement to turn over the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho to the Palestinians.

Analysts predict a stalemate of at least months, despite the fact that Syrian-Israeli negotiations are due to resume in Washington next month. ``I wouldn't expect anything within the next few months,'' Mr. Satloff says.

In the new optimistic outlook for the Middle East, Syria and Lebanon, which Damascus controls, remain the odd men out. Only one day after PLO Chairman Arafat and Mr. Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, Jordan and Israel signed an agenda governing future peace talks.

But Mr. Assad is still bristling over the Palestinians' move. ``I believe it was done to the detriment of the Palestinians and the Arabs. No one but Israel has gained from this,'' he told a Cairo newspaper Monday.

IF Syria remains the dissenter, analysts say, Damascus could not only stall a global settlement in the Middle East, but it could easily revert to its traditional role as spoiler, undermining the fledgling understanding between Israel and the PLO through its radical Palestinian surrogates both within and outside the occupied territories.

In 1983, flexing his muscles, Assad sabotaged a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel in the wake of the Israeli invasion. Later that year, he tried to unseat Arafat as head of the PLO.

``You can't ignore Syria,'' says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. ``It would be unwise to allow the Syria track to go into remission. We can't allow it.''

The Clinton administration seems to understand this. Two days after the PLO-Israel signing and in the wake of Palestinian protests in Damascus, President Clinton telephoned Assad, reiterating Washington's commitment to Syrian-Israeli peace and asking the Syrian ruler to rein in anti-Arafat Palestinians in Syria.

But Middle East analysts say more will be needed than telephone calls. Syria insists on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel, for its part, insists on a Syrian description of ``full peace'' before defining the amount of land it will cede on the plateau. Neither side has budged.

According to State Department officials, a slight softening on both sides was detected during Secretary of State Warren Christopher's trip to the region in August. Just before Israel signed its agreement with the PLO, the Israelis implied they might acknowledge Syria's sovereignty over the Golan Heights while phasing a withdrawal over years.

But this idea was never introduced into the talks, a Syrian Embassy spokeswoman says. ``Full withdrawal and full peace is our stand, and it hasn't changed,'' she says.

How to bring the Syrians on board - not only in talks with Israel but to support the PLO in its turn toward peace - is a major dilemma for the US. ``The Syrian track needs full attention on the highest level,'' Mr. Jahshan says.

According to an administration official, ``The president and the secretary of state are going to be involved. This track will require high-level attention, and we're ready to play that role.''

The Syrians also will require Israeli flexibility and a commitment to withdraw, which Israel is not likely to offer at this juncture.

``In the short term,'' Satloff says, ``the Syrians are going to want to see whether Arafat has the mettle to make the PLO agreement work. They're going to lend their support to those who oppose. They will test whether this new alliance will hold together. ``If it works, the Syrians will not want to be the odd man out. But for now, Assad's not in a rush to get on the peace train.''

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