President to push for Syria thaw

U.S. is encouraged by reports that Assad no longer backs terror

`Golden opportunity now'

Clinton, Barak pledge close U.S.-Israeli ties, broad effort for peace

July 20, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, concluding a series of meetings with Israel's new prime minister, said yesterday that he would personally press Syria's president, Hafez el Assad to push negotiations forward.

U.S. officials said they were encouraged by reports that Syria has halted its support for Damascus-based groups that use violence to undercut the Middle East peace process.

If the reports are true, they said, the shift could help Syria get taken off the list of nations that sponsor terrorism and lead to a better relationship with the United States.

Clinton disclosed his planned contact with Assad after Prime Minister Ehud Barak vowed to leave "no stone unturned" in trying to reach agreement not only with Syria and its client Lebanon but with the Palestinians.

To ease the risks for Israel in making concessions to the Arabs, the United States agreed to a significant deepening of the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership and to meet on a regular basis.

Senior officials from the two countries will form a Strategic Policy Planning Group to look for ways to bolster Israel's security, and will report to the president and prime minister every four months.

The allies also agreed on broad new cooperation to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

As a result of the meeting, Washington lifted its hold on $1.2 billion in aid promised to Israel under the Wye River accords signed in Maryland in October by Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, but only partly carried out. The Palestinians would get $400 million and Jordan $300 million under the package.

At a joint news conference with Barak, Clinton said Syria's president has an opportunity to resume negotiations with Israel that broke down amid a wave of anti-Israeli terrorism in early 1996.

"He knows very well that I am committed to the peace process between Israel and Syria and that I believe that he has a golden opportunity now to resume that process, and that I hope he will do so," Clinton said in response to a question.

"And I intend to reaffirm that in the appropriate way at the conclusion of our meeting. We, too, would like more normal relations with Syria, and we would like Syria to be reconciled to all its neighbors in the region, and I think anything that Syria does to disassociate itself from terrorists is a positive step in the right direction."

An aide said later that the contact could be a telephone call or a written message, but said it might not be immediate.

Officials were trying to assess reports that Syria was halting its official support for terrorism. Members of Palestinian opposition groups based in Damascus said Syria had told them this month to stop fighting Israel because it intended to make peace with the Jewish state, Reuters reported.

"We're still looking to see what this whole meeting was about," a White House official said, referring to reports of a meeting between Assad's vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, and leading officials of Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel. According to Reuters, the groups were told that they must abandon violence and assume the role of political parties.

In response to the news stories, some opposition groups denied the report. Israeli officials with Barak said they were looking into the story and declined to comment.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is expected to visit Damascus on a trip to the Middle East next month. Israeli officials said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah could serve as a bridge between Jerusalem and Damascus.

While the prospect of negotiations with Syria has captured attention during Barak's trip, the two leaders stressed yesterday their intent to move the peace process forward with the Palestinians as well.

Meeting Jewish leaders in New York over the weekend, Barak said he wanted to avoid provoking Palestinian anger over the highly charged issue of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

"He had a very nuanced approach," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "He rooted everything in a sense of realism that impressed people very much."

While reaffirming Israel's position that Jerusalem must remain its indivisible and eternal capital and saying that Jews should be able to live anywhere, he added that unless Israelis were sensitive to the needs of Jerusalem's non-Jewish population, they would weaken their case for sovereignty, participants said.

Barak's minister in charge of Jerusalem has opposed a Jewish housing project called Ras al-Amud in the heart of an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

An Israeli official predicted that under Barak, the dispute over Jewish settlements in the West Bank "will no longer be a big issue" between the United States and Israel.

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