US Envoy Will Try to Restart Syria-Israel Talks

Assad may choose to wait out current battles over the Palestinian-Israeli deal

UNITED States Secretary of State Warren Christopher faces a tough task as he arrives here tonight for a re-newed attempt to get the stalled Middle East peace talks going again.

In his week of shuttling around the region, the US envoy will have to persuade Israel to deal seriously with Syria at the same time it is implementing its accord with the Palestinians.

He will also have to convince Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to return to the negotiating table in Washington before Israel pledges to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights.

And on top of that, Mr. Christopher will have to act as a fireman in the talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the details of their autonomy agreement, which appears deadlocked less than two weeks before the accord is due to go into effect on Dec. 13.

Christopher arrives in Jerusalem tonight and will see Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres before flying to Damascus Sunday. He will then fly to Amman before returning to Israel and then going on to Cairo Wednesday. After a second trip to Damascus on Thursday, he will have a final meeting with Mr. Rabin before flying to Tunis for talks with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

His stiffest challenge, as he races through this intense schedule, is to bring Israel and Syria back to the Washington Middle East peace talks.

``The negotiations with Syria are well and truly blocked, and there is no secret channel,'' Mr. Peres told the Israeli Knesset (parliament) on Wednesday. ``Negotiations with Damascus have not even begun.''

Rabin has made it plain that he does not consider negotiations with Syria a priority at the moment, and that he wants to implement his deal with the PLO before addressing the question of the Golan Heights.

That would mean postponing any serious talks with Damascus until at least next April, when the last Israeli troops are due to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho. Christopher, however, is known to want to get negotiations started much earlier than that, for fear that their already failing momentum could evaporate entirely.

The Syrians, on the other hand, have shown no signs of budging from their oft-repeated stand that they will not go back to the Washington talks unless Israel commits itself in advance to withdrawing fully from the Golan Heights, captured during the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

Christopher is most unlikely to be able to secure such a commitment from Rabin at this stage, observers here say. ``I cannot see Israel making that concession up front, if at all, without an Israeli-Syrian summit meeting,'' says Dore Gold, a strategic analyst with the Jaffee Center in Tel Aviv.

Whether Syria might be satisfied with a renewed pledge by Washington to stay closely involved in the peace talks, and an implicit offer to pressure Israel to make concessions, depends on how keen Mr. Assad is to move fast.

Under the current conditions, Syria is standing third in line to make peace with Israel, after the Palestinians and Jordan, which have already signed a Declaration of Principles with the Jewish state. This gives Assad little diplomatic leverage.

Some Syria-watchers here suspect the Syrian leader might prefer to wait and see what happens with the Israel-PLO accord, which is running into increasing difficulties. ``Assad's interest may well be to wait for the Israel-PLO deal to self-destruct,'' Dr. Gold suggests. ``If that happens, the United States and Israel will both turn to him as the only serious party that could move the peace process forward,'' and he would be back in the driving seat.

CERTAINLY the prospects of success for Israel's framework peace accord with the PLO are looking dimmer now than they did a month ago, amid rising violence in the occupied territories and concerns about the PLO's capacity to administer the autonomous zones smoothly.

The talks to flesh out the Oslo agreement have also run into trouble, and the PLO yesterday called on Washington and Moscow - cosponsors of the peace process - to step in and break the impasse.

``The PLO warns that the Israeli practices and policies ... need the urgent intervention of the cosponsors of the peace process and the international community, to guarantee implementation of the agreement,'' said the statement, issued in Tunis.

The talks are deadlocked over the scope and nature of Israel's military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, control over border crossings with Egypt and Jordan, and the size of the area around Jericho that the PLO will run.

Rabin and Mr. Arafat are expected to meet before Dec. 13 to try to iron out their differences, but it is clear that the Palestinians nonetheless expect Washington to pressure the Israelis into concessions.

Arafat will be keen to enlist Christopher in his campaign to make Israel stick to the timetable envisioned in the Oslo accord. Rabin has said several times that he would prefer to miss the Dec. 13 deadline for agreement on the transfer of power than sign a bad treaty.

Arafat, however, is insisting that the Dec. 13 date is ``sacred.''

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