U.S.-Syria-Israel summit is being pushed by Clinton Meeting aims to get Assad to talk with Israelis for first time

January 24, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Anxious to accelerate the pace of Israeli-Syrian peacemaking, U.S. officials will try in coming weeks to persuade Syria's President Hafez el Assad to join in a three-way summit with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and President Clinton.

U.S. officials said tangible signs of progress were needed and they are hoping for "a greater willingness to consider summitry" by Mr. Assad. Negotiators from Syria and Israel are to return today to Maryland's Eastern Shore for a new round of talks.

The Clinton administration wants a peace settlement to be reached in 1996, thereby providing the president with a major foreign policy achievement in an election year.

But on the eve of the talks at the Wye River Conference Centers, neither Israel nor Syria showed much new flexibility on issues that have blocked progress for the past four years.

"The real question is whether Assad is really ready" for peace, a senior Israeli official said in a meeting with American editors and columnists. "We expect the U.S. to realize that the real onus is on the shoulders of Assad."

In Damascus, the Syrian capital, the official daily Tishreen warned Israel against exaggerated "security obsessions" that could obstruct the peace process.

Uncertain of progress on substance, U.S. officials have now looked at the possibility of a three-way Israeli-Syrian-U.S. summit to dramatize a commitment to the peace process.

One senior administration official said that if a date can't be agreed on before Secretary of State Warren Christopher travels to Jerusalem and Damascus in early February, there should at least be "movement toward a summit" by then.

Israelis have long hoped for some significant peace gesture by Mr. Assad, one of the Jewish state's most implacable foes.

So far, Mr. Assad has refused to meet with any Israeli leader. Since the Syrian president wants to improve relations with Washington, U.S. officials hope an invitation from Mr. Clinton for a three-way meeting would change his mind.

Any meeting probably would occur in Europe, since Mr. Assad refuses to travel to Israel and it would be politically difficult for Mr. Clinton to invite the Syrian president to Washington as long as Damascus has not made peace with Israel and remains on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

U.S. officials say they recognize that Mr. Peres is under powerful political pressure to call parliamentary elections as early as June and are worried that a political campaign would distract his government and "freeze" the peace process for months. Mr. Peres became prime minister after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November.

Officially, the Israeli government says there is no connection between the peace talks and its election timetable.

But U.S. officials say the connection is inescapable. For Mr. Peres to delay elections beyond June for the sake of the peace talks, he will need to show "concrete, substantive progress," one U.S. official said. A summit is one way of doing that, officials said.

The central issue between Israel and Syria is the exchange of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights for peace guarantees and full recognition by Damascus.

The issue is complicated by deep-seated disputes over security arrangements, the nature of a future peace between Israel and Syria, and both countries' need for water from the Golan region.

In previewing the Wye talks for journalists yesterday, the senior Israeli official said negotiators would place new emphasis on discussing security arrangements that would accompany an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and on water sharing.

High-ranking military officers from Israel and Syria will join the talks.

The Israeli official predicted that a final settlement would include a few hundred uniformed monitors on the Golan Heights. Americans would be preferred since they are "trusted," he said.

The official also repeated Israel's demand for a manned observation post on the Golan Heights as the most effective early warning against a Syrian attack. Intelligence devices, such as satellites, would not offer sufficient coverage, the official said.

"We need reassurances on early warning," the official said.

Arrangements for the withdrawal of Israeli troops should include both a demilitarized zone, plus other territory in which weaponry on each side would be limited, he said. Israel would be encouraged to be more flexible by signs that the Syrians are redeploying troops in advance of an agreement, he said.

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