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Anger over Bush Meeting with Assad Tempered by Plan to Meet with Shamir

Israeli indignation over President Bush’s meeting in Geneva on Friday with Syrian President Hafez Assad has been mollified somewhat by indications from Bush that he will soon meet with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Shamir is going to be in the United States on a private visit next month. He is due there Dec. 7 and is now expected to meet with Bush at the White House before he leaves the country.

The open displeasure that greeted the news here of Bush’s talk with Assad aggravated speculation over whether the American president would find time to see Shamir, whom he has virtually ignored since the Persian Gulf crisis began over three months ago.

The prime minister, expecting a rebuff, reportedly had asked his aides and American friends to stop putting out feelers for such a meeting.

Israel supports Bush’s policy to reverse Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait, by force if necessary. It has been understanding, if uneasy, about U.S. efforts to shore up ties with Arab governments opposed to Hussein.

But most Israelis believe Bush went too far by meeting Assad, thereby endowing with prestige and respectability a dictator as bloody and repressive as Hussein and one believed to be equally supportive of international terrorists.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens said Israel was apprehensive that the United States might remove Syria from its list of countries that support terrorism, as it did for Iraq during its war with Iran.

HERZOG SPEAKS TO BUSH BY PHONE

Arens said, however, that he did not oppose the Bush-Assad meeting per se and would welcome a meeting between Shamir and Assad if the Syrian leader wanted to talk peace with Israel.

But there is no evidence of that. Arens said he hopes Bush’s meeting with Assad does not encourage Syria’s “aggressive” policies toward Israel.

He was uneasy about the fact that the two presidents discussed the need to advance solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in accordance with Security Council resolutions.

The Israeli defense minister criticized Bush and Secretary of State James Baker for coming to the region without finding time to visit Israel.

A somewhat different view was expressed by Israel’s president, Chaim Herzog, who came to Geneva on a private visit last Thursday and spoke to President Bush there by telephone.

“I am on the record publicly as applauding him for what he is doing, leading the free world against a megalomaniac who is endangering humanity,” Herzog said, referring to Bush’s efforts to isolate Hussein.

“It’s up to President Bush to decide who he talks to in pursuing his policy,” he told reporters at his hotel. “Assad has sent troops, he borders Iraq and it makes sense that the various leaders of the coalition should talk to each other.”

Some commentators here pointed out Sunday that the Bush-Assad meeting might prove to be an incentive for the Bush administration to mend its fences with Israel and improve their recently strained relations.

That was seen as a possibility given the strong negative reaction of American Jewish leaders to the meeting and the unusually sharp criticism in the American media.

A LOW-KEV MEETING

Bush and Assad met for three hours, the last 40 minutes of which were a one-on-one session at which Assad is believed to have asked for an international peace conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Bush reportedly appealed for Syrian help to free American and other Western hostages still held in Lebanon.

They also discussed human rights issues, but it could not immediately be confirmed if these included the condition of Jews in Syria. The Brooklyn-based Committee for Rescue of Syrian Jewry had urged Bush to raise the matter with the Syrian leader.

Apparently at Assad’s request, both presidents expressed a preference for a “peaceful solution to the crisis, according to Arab League and United Nations resolutions.”

The meeting took place at a secluded hotel near the airport. The Americans went out of their way to keep it low-key. No refreshments were served, to avoid the appearance that either side played host to the other.

There was no briefing for the news media, only a short communique stressing that the two presidents declare the occupation of Kuwait to be “unacceptable as would be any partial solution.”

U.N. circles in Geneva said Assad was a tougher interlocutor than Bush had expected and did not offer any firm commitment to help the United States in a military confrontation with Iraq.

In fact, Syria has sent what amounts only to a token force to Saudi Arabia, equipped with a few obsolete Soviet tanks. Assad has not massed troops on Syria’s long border with Iraq.

But he may drive a hard bargain. He is expected to make clear that if Iraq is required to withdraw from Kuwait, Syria would expect Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights and its self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon.

(JTA correspondent Tamar Levy in Geneva contributed to this report.)

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