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News Analysis: Israelis Wary of U.s.-syrian Deals As U.S. Secretary Arrives in Region

Suspicious of Syria’s intentions and increasingly mistrustful of Washington, Israeli officials are seeking ways to deflect new U.S. pressure when Secretary of State James Baker gets here next week after visiting Arab capitals.

Baker’s fifth peace mission to the region since the Persian Gulf War-ended in March was prompted by Syria’s purported assent to U.S.-proposed compromise for convening a regional peace conference, which Israel had already rejected.

As Baker arrived in Damascus on Thursday for another round of talks with President Hafez Assad, there was growing concern in Jerusalem that the United States may be double-dealing.

Various analyses surfacing as Baker’s visit here approaches indicate that the Americans conducted lengthy negotiations with Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to obtain responses to Washington’s proposals that could leave Israel isolated.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the only Arab nation formally at peace with Israel, held what was billed as an emergency talk with Assad in Damascus on Wednesday in advance of Baker’s arrival there. Both were sharply critical of Israel’s stance.

While Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir replied speedily — and negatively — to President Bush’s proposal for a U.N. role at the peace conference, Assad took six weeks to draft his response and reportedly was coached by the U.S. ambassador in Damascus.

His reply got an upbeat reception from the Americans, who did not, however, reveal its contents. The absence of information further fueled Shamir’s mistrust of the Bush administration.

Israelis gather from comments out of Damascus that the Americans may have intimated certain things to Syria that were kept from Israel.

It is believed that the United States promised generous economic aid to the Syrians and gave them a list of clarifications of U.S. positions that are not compatible with agreements the Americans reached with Israel.

Jerusalem, for example, is upset by President Bush’s apparent reassurance to Assad of U.S. support for the return of the Golan Heights.

Israel seized the territory from Syria in 1967 and applied its rule of law there in 1980, a move tantamount to annexation.

PLO OPERATING BEHIND SCENES

According to Bush, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which would be the basis for peace talks, apply the principle of trading territory for peace to the Golan Heights.

The Shamir government maintains that by giving back Sinai, it already has satisfied the resolutions’ demand for return of land.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Thursday that Israel sent a message to Bush administration officials reminding them that Baker had promised Shamir that the United States would refrain from offering its interpretations of U.N. resolutions before negotiations start.

According to Ma’ariv, the worst-case scenario gaining credence in Jerusalem is that a coordinated effort will be made by the United States, the Soviet Union and the Arab states to isolate Israel.

Of primary concern in Jerusalem is the apparent U.S. willingness to allow the Palestine Liberation Organization to operate behind the scenes in the framework of negotiations.

The PLO reportedly is being included in the consultations and efforts to formulate a unified position among all of the Arab states.

A report was received here Wednesday of a meeting between a PLO delegation and two senior Egyptian officials, Foreign Minister Amre Moussa and Minister of State Osama el-Baz.

The head of the PLO delegation, Mahmud Abbas, expects his delegation also will be meeting with representatives of Syria and Jordan.

Jerusalem reacted angrily to that information, which contradicts understandings, gleaned from Baker’s earlier visits, that the PLO would be kept out of the peace process.

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