One week into the latest round of Middle East peace talks, Israel’s new government is already questioning Syria’s commitment to the process.
“I am not convinced that Syria is ready for a full-fledged peace agreement with us,” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told participants in the United Jewish Appeal Prime Minister’s Mission here Sunday. “We still have to see how far Syria has changed its previous position, and not only vis-a-vis the United States,” he said.
“This government is resolved not to repeat with Syria the precedent of the Likud government in its 1978 agreement with Egypt, whereby it returned every square inch of Egyptian soil occupied in the Six-Day War of 1967,” he asserted.
Rabin’s stern tone, which contrasted sharply with his otherwise conciliatory remarks, appeared an attempt to clarify – and perhaps toughen – his position on the Golan Heights.
The prime minister’s statement last week that Israel “does not need to hold on to every inch of the Golan” caused a stir both here and abroad.
Even those Israelis who favor territorial compromise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip seemed surprised by Rabin’s apparent willingness to make concessions in the Golan, an area that has been considered vital to Israel’s security.
But Rabin reiterated his commitment to continuous negotiations in Washington with the various Arab parties. “We are ready for serious negotiations with the Palestinians, and this can only be achieved in a continuous framework,” he said.
Though the government had and would continue to make concessions toward peace, Rabin said, “we are talking about an interim agreement, not the creation of an independent Palestinian state.”
“Jerusalem will remain our capital, under our sovereignty,” he vowed.
While calling Palestinian terrorism “a painful problem that must be dealt with,” Rabin distinguished between acts of terror and acts of war. “Terrorism takes the lives of Israelis every week, but it cannot threaten the very existence of Israel.”
The prime minister said the Persian Gulf War had given the country some much- needed breathing space, militarily speaking.
“Thanks to the Gulf war, which knocked out much of Iraq’s military strength, and the further destruction of weapons by the U.N., the very existence of Israel is no longer threatened, at least for the next few years,” he said.
“As a result, we have a window of opportunity of perhaps two to five years in which to solve our internal problems and seek out peace. There is no imminent military threat that can endanger Israel right now,” he said.
The prime minister also touched on his meetings with President Bush three weeks ago at the president’s vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine. He spoke of the mutual understanding and respect that exists between Jerusalem and Washington.
“Israel and the U.S. have longstanding differences, going back through the terms of six American presidents, over the settlements in the territories, and over the price which Israel should pay for peace,” he said.
“I didn’t tell the president to change his position, as I didn’t change mine,” he said. “Yet we agree to disagree on such issues.”
“At the same time,” he added, “we agree about what our two countries have to do together. Our object is to maintain close and intimate cooperation with the U.S.”
During his recent visit to Washington, Rabin said, “I told former Secretary of State (James) Baker that we could not prevent the completion of 11,000 housing units in the territories. I told him, frankly, that there was a limit to my capabilities.”
“Sometimes the basis for the creation of mutual trust and confidence is to tell one another unpleasant things,” he said. “This, I believe, is the way Israel- U.S. relations should be conducted.”
In what could be a partial reversal of remarks he made in the United States earlier this month, Rabin asked his American listeners to press Congress to approve a package of loan guarantees for Israel that Bush has approved in principle.
“There may be more problems with the Congress than there were with the administration,” he said. “I hope the issue will not get stuck in legislation. But I have no doubt that the American Jewish community will help.”
“I hope and believe that the Jewish community will work together to make sure that what has to be done will be done,” he said.
During meetings in New York three weeks ago, Rabin reportedly criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other American Jewish groups from lobbying too stridently for the loan guarantees last fall.
He was also quoted as telling Jewish groups that they should leave contacts with the U.S. administration on matters concerning Israel up to Jerusalem, rather than assuming the responsibility themselves.