Rabin Treads Softly in Washington During Congressional Transition

Israeli prime minister sees secret talks as key to progress with Syria

FOR what must be the first time in this administration, a foreign head of government left Washington without a formal joint news conference with the president. But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had reason to tread quietly during this period of congressional transition. Although Jesse Helms, chairman-to-be of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has denounced foreign aid in general as sending a trillion dollars down global ``rat holes,'' the $3 billion for Israel, top recipient of American assistance, appears not to be in danger.

Israel is seen as a bulwark against a lot of ``unfriendlies'' in the Middle East - no longer the communists, but now Islamic militants. Almost all the military aid gets recycled into contracts with American defense industry. Mr. Rabin also has assurances from President Clinton of $200 million on top of an original $250 million to help Palestinians in Gaza, despite difficulties in getting Yasser Arafat to account for the money.

Trickier is the Syrian part of the peace process, which remains stuck despite the hopeful sounds Clinton made after his stop in Damascus. Rabin believes there will be no progress with Syria until there are direct, secret negotiations, which is how peace started with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

That makes somewhat hypothetical the idea of American troops on the Golan Heights to monitor a peace agreement with Syria, like the 1,000-man battalion that is part of the multinational observer force in the Sinai between Israel and Egypt. Rabin would like to keep alive the idea of a similar, non-United Nations, noncombat force for the Golan Heights, as a final stone in the edifice of a future Syrian peace. He did not press it with Republican leaders he met, including Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich. Rabin did not meet with Senator Helms, who supports aid to Israel but has called the Syrian peace process a fraud.

Rabin can wait for Syria. His nightmare is the militant Palestinian Hamas, a part of what he sees as a greater Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalist threat to the region. What worries Rabin most are suicide attacks, responsible for 40 of the recent 67 killings of Israelis.

``To men ready to blow themselves up, we have no answer,'' says Rabin. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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