Israeli envoy has 'upbeat feeling' about peace talks with Syria

September 26, 1994|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

The Israeli ambassador to the United States said in Baltimore last night he had an "upbeat feeling" about peace negotiations with Syria, and suggested that a breakthrough agreement could be possible "in a matter of months."

Speaking before an audience of more than 120 at Baltimore Hebrew University, as part of the school's 75th anniversary celebration, Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich talked about the steps that would have to be taken as part of any agreement and said clear progress has been made.

"You and I are at the beginning of the year," he said referring to the Jewish new year. "I hope when commencement takes place, what I have described as a vision becomes a reality."

Mr. Rabinovich, who is Israel's chief negotiator in the Syrian peace talks, was in New York earlier in the day consulting with his nation's foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

recent weeks, the Israeli government has offered to withdraw from some unspecified part of the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. Possession of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, has been a key sticking point of the negotiations.

Mr. Rabinovich was the keynote speaker for the convocation that marked the beginning of the school's anniversary celebration. Baltimore Hebrew University was founded in 1919 and grew from a training ground for Hebrew teachers to include a full range of graduate courses and programs.

As evidence for his optimism, Mr. Rabinovich said that Syrian President Hafez el Assad has begun preparing his people for peace with Israel. He said the government-controlled Syrian Television had broadcast the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement in Washington over the summer and added that a week ago, street signs started appearing in Damascus with slogans for peace.

While acknowledging that those steps are no guarantee of a peace accord, Mr. Rabinovich termed them strong indications of the intentions of the Syrian government.

"There is a real possibility of coming to an agreement," he said.

Mr. Rabinovich said any lasting peace must involve a series of confidence-building measures to increase public support within Israel for an agreement. Any withdrawal from the Golan Heights should be phased in over time, with diplomatic recognition and economic trade proceeding at a faster pace, he said.

"We have told the Syrians from day one, you have to make peace with our public, not just in a closed room." he said. "Israeli society must take the risks, so Israeli society must be convinced that peace is the right thing."

Mr. Rabinovich said there are several Arab countries, including Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Oman, that have taken a wait-and-see attitude, but seem interested in following up a Syrian-Israel pact with agreements of their own.

The envoy was careful not to make definite predictions. There are no face-to-face talks between the two sides, and negotiations have been handled with the United States as intermediary, he said.

That situation puts pressure on U.S. diplomatic efforts, particularly Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's planned trip to the Middle East next month.

"The United States has helped keep the momentum. The gaps are narrowing steadily, but slowly," he said.

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