Israel not satisfied with Assad remark

January 17, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- If Israelis were waiting for President Hafez el Assad to spell out his vision of a peace plan, it was a short spelling lesson.

Publicly the Syrian leader uttered the one word Israel was waiting for -- "normal" relations -- but declined to go further than that.

"What he said in public is quite foggy," grumbled Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "We need clarifications."

But Mr. Assad's clipped message in Geneva may be just enough to get the peace talks grinding along again. "It was less than optimum," said one Israeli analyst. "But he gave enough."

Israeli-Syrian negotiations have been stuck over Syria's refusal to describe the extent of peace it is prepared to offer and Israel's refusal to describe the extent to which it will withdraw from the Golan Heights.

There was hope yesterday's summit would break that deadlock if Mr. Assad committed to fully normal relations.

But after his remark on seeking peace, Mr. Assad retreated when asked if he meant he is willing to agree to such things as open borders and Israeli tourism, elements Israel is demanding.

U.S. officials insisted Mr. Assad had delivered the goods.

It was a "clear, forthright and very important statement on normal peace relations," President Clinton contended.

Israeli leaders were less certain.

"I wouldn't like to draw conclusions on the basis of the press conference only," said Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Had Mr. Assad committed to normalized relations?

"That is what Clinton said," the prime minister replied on Israel Television. "I have to hear it from Assad."

Mr. Rabin said he preferred to wait before responding until he is briefed on the lengthy meeting between Mr. Assad and Mr. Clinton. Two top State Department aides rushed from Geneva to Jerusalem last night to do that.

"Normalization has been mentioned by the Syrians in the past as well," Mr. Rabin noted. "The problem is, in what proximity to the term 'peace'? And at what schedule can peace be reached? And at what price for Israel?"

Mr. Peres said last night the Syrian president's meaning is "still shrouded in fog. Assad did not say whether he's going toward embassies, whether he's going toward open borders, whether he's going toward free trade."

Mr. Peres said that without further clarification, including a mechanism for keeping peace on the Syrian border, Israel will not move from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.

"We will on no account start with the issue of withdrawal," Mr. Peres said.

For more than two years of negotiations, Israel and Syria have been stuck on the insistence of each that the other lay out its peace offer first. Israel wants to ensure that it gains more than a "cold peace" and wants Syria to promise free trade, an exchange of embassies and open borders.

But Israel has wavered on how much of Syria's Golan Heights it will give up in exchange for that peace. Syria demands all of its former territory and insists that Israel first pledge total withdrawal.

"It will be a game of words for some time," said Yossi Olmert, an Israeli expert on Syria. "It's clear Assad gave the go-ahead for the process. It wasn't enough, but you can't expect Assad to give it all in one meal."

"Now the Americans will come to Israel and say, 'Syria gave enough. Now it's your turn,' " Mr. Olmert predicted.

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