JERUSALEM (May. 5)
The Cabinet met today for 4 1/2 hours to decide whether Israel would make territorial concessions to Syria in return for a disengagement agreement. Today’s Cabinet session is probably the most crucial in the present round of Middle East diplomacy. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger flew to Amman. Jordan this afternoon. He will be back in Israel tomorrow morning to hear the government’s decision and will fly to Damascus to convey it to the Syrians. Most observers here believe the success of his current mission to achieve a disengagement accord will depend on what he hears from the Israelis tomorrow and how their decision is received by the Syrians. (See P. 3 for Cabinet meeting.)
The thrust of Dr. Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts has become apparent. In seven hours of talks with Syrian leaders in Damascus yesterday he sought to extract concessions on such issues as the United Nations role in a disengagement Accord; prisoner of war exchange; buffer zones; and limited forces zones. In his talks with Israeli leaders, the over-riding issue has been territorial. A high U.S. official reportedly said yesterday that Syria and Israel were within “negotiating range” on all issues except the territorial one.
BLEAK ALTERNATIVE TO DISENGAGEMENT
Kissinger has avoided any semblance of pressure on Israel, but he is trying hard to persuade the government to make what is clearly an unpalatable decision to give up both the Golan Heights town of Kuneitra and the hills to its west. He reportedly told the Cabinet that it was hardly worth forgoing the chance of disengagement for the sake of a few barren hills. He also reportedly spent considerable time here painting a bleak picture of the alternatives to a disengagement agreement.
According to some sources, Kissinger forecast a further escalation of fighting on the northern front, Egyptian intervention and Soviet involvement. U.S. officials, however, have dismissed the visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Damascus today as simply a Soviet manifestation of “visibility” in the region rather than a bald attempt to sabotage current negotiations.
According to informed sources, Kissinger encountered some willingness on the part of Syrian President Hafez Assad to consider a Suez-style buffer zone policed by the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) rather than the UN observers corps as the Syrians had insisted up to now. The Syrians were also reported prepared to agree to a POW exchange at the outset of disengagement. Kissinger was said to feel that some diplomatic formula could be worked out on “linkage” of disengagement to a final peace settlement that would satisfy both sides. But Syrian flexibility was said to be conditional on Israel’s acceptance of its territorial demands.
SEEK CONCESSION ON KUNEITRA. HILLS
Officially, Israel remains adamant in its refusal to relinquish any territory save that captured in the Yom Kippur War last Oct. In recent days, however, there seemed to be a softening on the matter of Kuneitra. Stories appeared in the press playing down Kuneitra’s military value But the hills surrounding the town were said to be absolutely not negotiable in the Israeli view because they command all of the northern Golan Heights. Today’s reports indicated that Kissinger was seeking Israeli concessions not only on Kuneitra, but the hills as well.
Highly placed U.S. officials have admitted the possibility that no agreement will be reached during Kissinger’s current round of talks, though they professed confidence that disengagement will be achieved eventually. At the very least, however, Kissinger must bring a bout a cease-fire on the northern front if he is to claim any success for his current mission, If he manages that, he might return to the region for a sixth time to continue his diplomatic rounds or he might seek to move the disengagement issue to Geneva for settlement.