Striking While Peace Is Hot: Israel, Syria Try Again for Pact

Rabin assassination, Palestinian progress create a new mood for talks

A MORE flexible Israeli prime minister and a chastened Syrian president have agreed to give peace another chance.

Another round of shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher helped break a six-month impasse and schedule new talks in Washington between Syria and Israel on Dec. 27.

The two countries have been deadlocked over security and border arrangements for the return of the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who has long portrayed Syria as the key to a comprehensive Middle East peace, agreed to discuss the full range of issues rather than concentrate first on security issues as former Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin had done.

"It's a new game, it's a new time, it's a new beginning," Mr. Peres told reporters Saturday.

He said that for the first time he believed there was a chance for a reasonable exchange of ideas between the two countries.

Peres said he believed that neighboring Lebanon, where about 40,000 Syrian troops are stationed and where Israeli troops man a buffer zone in the south, could be discussed for the first time.

And he also recently hinted that Israel might consider withdrawing its troops from Lebanon under certain conditions.

"This is where Peres begins to put his personal stamp on the Israeli leadership and give substance to his claim that winning the peace is more important than winning the next elections," a Western diplomat says.

Syrian side

Syrian President Hafez Assad, who indicated to Mr. Christopher that Syria would be flexible rather than pursue a hard line, has dropped the precondition that Israel declare its intention for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before wide-ranging talks begin.

The more flexible style of Peres, progress with the Israel-Palestinian peace accord, and the impact of the November assassination of Prime Minister Rabin on the Syrian leader were the key factors leading to the resumption of talks, diplomats and political analysts say.

"I think President Assad was shocked by the Rabin assassination and the extent of the opposition within Israel to the peace process," says Meir Zamir, a Middle Eastern analyst at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.

Professor Zamir says that Mr. Assad also feels the pressure of coming US presidential and Israeli elections and is aware that Israel will not be able to enter into final status negotiations with the Palestinians and implement a Syrian peace deal simultaneously.

"Also Syria knows that the present US administration is committed to peace with Syria, but that it can't be sure that the next US president will be as committed to a peace deal," he continues. "But, perhaps the most important change is the creativity of the new Israeli prime minister."

Zamir says he does not think it will be possible for Israel and Syria to reach final agreement before Israeli elections - due to take place by November next year - but it should be possible to reach agreement in principle, which could then be put to the Israeli electorate.

"This would enable the Israeli government to go to the elections with a draft agreement," Zamir says, "and would dramatically improve the government's [the Labor Party's] chances of winning the elections."

Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, condemned the prime minister's latest move and predicted yesterday that Israel was preparing to give Syria everything it wanted, including the Golan Heights.

Zamir also says that since the assassination of Rabin, the mood in Israel has swung in favor of peace.

Rabin had committed himself to holding a referendum on the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic mountainous plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, before going ahead with any peace deal.

Military talks between Israel and Syria broke down in mid-July, because Assad suddenly refused Israel's demand for an early-warning station on the Golan Heights. Soon after, the Knesset - Israel's parliament - deadlocked 59-59 on a bill that would have required a special Knesset majority and a referendum before returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

Talks and more talks

Three days of intensive talks in Washington between the two sides will be followed by a second round of talks in the first week of January.

Christopher then will return to the Mideast on Jan. 10 to hold talks with Peres and Assad to assess progress and plan the next move.

Peres also said on Saturday that the resumption of the talks so soon after the Christopher mission indicated "the seriousness on the part of Damascus to move ahead quickly."

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