WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Clinton moved closer yesterday to finding a face-saving way for Israel and Syria to resume peace talks that broke off earlier this year on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Emerging from a late afternoon meeting with the president, Netanyahu said, "The crucial thing is not for one side to try to nail the other side on fixed positions as conditions for entering negotiations."
He added: "I think what is required now is a good-faith effort on the part of Syria as well as on our part -- and we have that -- to resume negotiations at the Wye Plantation."
While refusing to commit himself to any understandings reached by his predecessor over Syria, Netanyahu is now willing to "acknowledge" that some progress was made during earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights, according to a senior Israeli official accompanying the prime minister.
The Golan Heights are the strategic high ground captured by Israel from Syria in the June 1967 Mideast war and occupied by the Israelis ever since.
Previously, Israel insisted that talks begin "without preconditions," implying that any progress previously made was for naught.
Syria, for its part, has demanded that the negotiations pick up where they left off, meaning that Netanyahu would have to accept any implicit understandings reached by the previous Labor government headed by Shimon Peres.
"I think it's only realistic to acknowledge that something has gone on and not to ignore it," said the Israeli official, who answered questions from reporters midway through the prime minister's day of meetings with Clinton and members of his Cabinet.
Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's top Middle East negotiator, told reporters after the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting that both Syria and Israel want to restart negotiations. The key is to "find the right kind of formula to allow them to proceed."
With last week's resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority, the Israeli-Syrian track is the only aspect of the peace process that remains totally stalled since Netanyahu and his Likud party defeated Peres in late May.
The Clinton administration is anxious that the peace process get back on track by Election Day, but is taking care to avoid alienating Jewish voters by appearing to exert strong pressure on Israel.
Israeli-Syrian talks opened last winter near Queenstown, with high hopes that the secluded Wye River Conference Centers would offer negotiators a setting conducive to progress.
Their object was to work out terms for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace between Israel and Syria.
The talks were suspended after a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants in Israel in February and March, and Peres was never in a strong enough position politically to resume them before his election defeat.
The senior Israeli official stressed to reporters that Netanyahu does not feel bound by any understandings reached between the Labor government and Syria. He cited particularly what he said was the previous government's willingness, under certain conditions, to relinquish the Golan Heights.
While offering a modest shift in dealing with Syria, Israeli officials maintained a defiant tone toward making more concessions to the Palestinians.
Meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy on Sunday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called on Israel to take "concrete" steps for peace, such as speeding the reduction of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron and raising the number of Palestinians allowed to work inside Israel.
But the Israelis refused to be rushed.
"Hebron is one of the most politically explosive cities in the area," said the senior Israeli official, a site of massacres and a radical Arab population. "Any precipitous move in Hebron may bring an explosion which in turn may bring a disaster, which in turn will bury the peace process."
Netanyahu went to the White House late yesterday afternoon after meeting at his hotel with Christopher and meeting with Defense Secretary William J. Perry at the Pentagon.
Pub Date: 9/10/96