SYRIAN President Hafez al-Assad will lay the basis for a peace treaty with Israel at his meeting with President Bill Clinton in Geneva on Sunday, but no dramatic breakthrough is expected, Israeli diplomats and observers are saying.
``We expect some progress, but whether it will be immediately significant I cannot say,'' one senior Israeli official said Thursday.
``We are on the verge of progress,'' agrees Yossi Olmert, a Syria-watcher who took part in a recent series of secret discussions with Syrian academics. ``There may not be dramatic results in this meeting, but things will move.''
The two hour summit is primarily designed to break the deadlock in peace talks between Israel and Syria that have been stalled for the past five months. Both sides are looking to Washington to smooth the path back to negotiations that are due to resume in two weeks.
Sunday's meeting falls at the end of President Clinton's European tour, but the fact that the date marks the third anniversary of the start of the Gulf war is telling.
Syria's participation in the US-led coalition against Iraq, an Arab neighbor, signalled a sea-change in President Assad's foreign policy. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Assad sought to improve relations with Washington, his old enemy.
Sunday's meeting is another step in that policy, which is especially important given that Damascus has pinned its hopes on pressure from the United States for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967.
``Assad wants urgently to improve his relations with the Americans, and he can only do this through the peace process,'' argues Dr. Olmert. ``He believes that if he says something better than he has done up till now on peace, ... the Americans will help him to achieve more,'' he adds.
At the same time, the summit is a feather in Assad's cap. The US State Department has blacklisted Syria for state-sponsored terrorism, but Clinton will nonetheless shake Assad's hand on Sunday, underscoring Syria's central role in any Middle East peace settlement.
One of Assad's goals in his talks with Clinton will be to have Syria taken off the terrorist list. Gestures offered by Assad to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher last month - allowing Syrian Jews to leave and helping to locate missing Israeli soldiers in Lebanon - were not enough.
US officials have reportedly promised Israel that Syria will remain on the list until Damascus offers to normalize relations with Israel as part of a peace treaty.
``I expect that Assad will at least whisper into Clinton's ear that what he means by full peace is diplomatic relations,'' predicts Prof. Moshe Maoz, an expert on the Israeli-Syrian conflict.
``But that will mean a full [Israeli] withdrawal from the Golan and from South Lebanon,'' he says.
Syria has promised ``full peace'' with Israel in return for a ``full withdrawal'' from the Golan Heights. But Syrian-Israeli negotiations have been tied up since last summer over Syria's refusal to explain what ``full peace'' means until Israel pledges to give up all the Golan.
Israel has refused to say how much of the Golan Heights it would surrender until Syria explains that ``full peace'' means an exchange of ambassadors, open borders, and trade.
Assad is a cautious man, not given to bold or flamboyant gestures such as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem. But ``what he says to the Americans will be enough for them [the Americans] to come back to the Israelis,'' Olmert predicts.
The Syrian leader's great fear, however, is of finding himself in the same position as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat - recognizing Israel, and then seeing the Israeli government drag its feet over withdrawal from the occupied territories.
``Assad does not want to expose himself without being certain that Israel will withdraw from all the Golan Heights,'' explains Prof. Maoz.
If the Syrian President does explain to Clinton what he means by ``full peace'' with Israel, he will put Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin in an awkward position. Mr. Rabin has often said he cannot pursue peace on the Palestinian and Syrian fronts simultaneously, but he would clearly be obliged to do so if Clinton extracted from Assad the assurances Israel has been demanding.
Left without a role in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Washington is clearly keen to help broker an accord between Israel and Syria.
In a further indication of the US desire to be involved, Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, presented his credentials in Jerusalem Thursday as the new US ambassador to Israel.