Syrians say Clinton must aid peace talks

November 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a thinly veiled ultimatum to President-elect Bill Clinton, Syria said yesterday that unless the incoming administration demonstrated skill and fairness as a Middle East mediator within three or four months, the Arab parties would consider ending the year-old peace talks with Israel.

Although Muwaffiq al-Allaf, Syria's chief delegate to the negotiations, left room for maneuver on the Arab side, his comments at a news conference were clearly intended to pressure Mr. Clinton into an early gesture to show that his view of the Arab-Israeli conflict goes beyond his openly pro-Israel campaign rhetoric.

"We have to give some reasonable time to the new American administration to pursue the efforts of President Bush" and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Mr. Allaf said. "Three or four months after the arrival of the new president to the White House . . . if [the Arab parties] see that rounds are continuing without progress . . . then it will be time to reconsider the whole thing.

"Arab patience cannot last forever," he said. "This peace process has lasted more than it should."

It is not unusual for Syria to dangle its participation in U.S.-brokered talks as a bargaining chip in its relationship with the U.S. government. Syrian President Hafez el Assad realizes that the talks cannot go on without his country, and so he is trying to strike the best deal he can in exchange for his participation.

There had been reports that Mr. Assad might seek immediate concessions from Mr. Clinton as the price for continuing the talks next year. Mr. Allaf's comments indicated that the wily Syrian dictator has decided to hold back a while, perhaps because he fears he would lose if he forced the issue at this time. If Mr. Clinton makes the inherited peace process his own, he can be expected to be more concerned about its success or failure than he is now when the talks are known as a Bush-Baker initiative.

Of course, it is in Mr. Assad's self-interest to stay on the good side of the world's only remaining superpower. So the Syrian leader probably will not try to exact an exorbitant price for removing his deadline. However, he clearly wants Mr. Clinton to modify the pro-Israel tone of his campaign.

In the peace talks, which began almost 13 months ago in Madrid, Spain, Israel is negotiating separately with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians. A Syrian withdrawal would almost surely scuttle the talks because none of the other Arabs could be expected to continue without Damascus.

In the seventh round of talks, which ended Thursday, Arab and Israeli delegates agreed on one thing: Nothing much was accomplished.

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