Israel and the United States have both denied a spate of media reports that efforts are under way to organize an Israeli-Syrian summit meeting.
But key officials of both countries say that as the Middle East peace process advances, it may be desirable and even necessary to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The reports of a possible summit and the subsequent denials came as the Middle East peace talks continued at the State Department in Washington for the fourth and final week of their present round.
The Syrians and Israelis agreed after the morning negotiating session that the talks had gotten back on track after turning sour last week, though neither party would say progress had been made.
Itamar Rabinovich, who heads the Israeli team negotiating with Syria, said he would not rule out meeting his objective of drafting a joint statement of principles by Thursday, when the round is scheduled to end.
There has been no final decision on when the talks will reconvene. The Israelis announced they would like to resume the talks Oct. 21. The Syrians and the Palestinians said they were open to a quick resumption but did not commit themselves to dates.
Rumors that the United States and Egypt are trying to arrange a summit meeting between Rabin and Assad have surfaced in media reports emanating from Washington and various Arab capitals in recent days.
Speculation about such a meeting was heightened by news that Osama el-Baz, the top political adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was due to arrive here soon for consultations on the state of the peace process.
Analysts here have suggested the Bush administration might be trying to arrange such a summit to give the president’s re-election campaign a needed boost before the November elections. They say a historic meeting of Israel and Syria’s top leaders, brokered by the United States, would powerfully improve Bush’s standing, especially among Jewish voters.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur said reports of an imminent Rabin-Assad summit were imaginary. But he said he hoped the day would come when the two leaders could meet together.
The U.S. ambassador to Israel, William Harrop, also threw cold water on the reports.
Addressing the United Jewish Appeal’s annual President’s Mission to Israel, Harrop faulted Syria for demanding an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights before setting out its own position on the nature of the peace.
Syria’s demand is unrealistic, the U.S. envoy said. “It is absolutely impossible for any leader of a democracy like Israel,” where the public has “legitimate security concerns,” to announce: “We’re going to withdraw altogether from the Golan Heights. Now let’s find out what we’re going to get for it.”
It will take some time” to ascertain Syria’s position on the nature of the peace it is willing to establish, Harrop said. But he said he is looking forward to a settlement that will address the security concerns of both countries.
Meanwhile, Rabin reiterated Monday that Israel will agree to territorial compromise only in exchange for a full peace treaty with Syria.
The prime minister spoke briefly at a special Knesset session as 1,500 demonstrators outside shouted slogans against withdrawal from the strategic plateau in the north.
The session was called during the parliamentary recess at the request of the opposition parties, which told Rabin he lacked a mandate to make concessions on the Golan.
Indicating his belief that negotiating positions are not set in stone, Rabin said there was no reason “to get excited” over demands by Damascus for total withdrawal without full peace. He reiterated his conviction that “something” will be achieved in the negotiations within nine to 12 months.
Rabin talked to his critics about “outdated political conceptions.” He reminded them that the Israeli people had given his government a mandate for action on peace, “and that’s what we shall do.”
He also reminded the Likud that it, too, adopted the position that Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 are the basis for the current peace process. The resolutions call for the exchange of land for peace.
Speakers for the opposition charged the prime minister with misleading the people.
Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau said Rabin promised during the election campaign that he would make no territorial compromises on the Golan Heights. Landau warned that his policies could lead to “a historic serious split among Israelis.”
Likud Knesset member Ariel Sharon charged that Assad is offering not “a peace of the brave,” but rather “a peace of the scared.” He accused Rabin of “gambling with the fate of the nation.”
Demonstrators outside carried placards opposing Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and chanted “Rabin is a traitor,” “Rabin is a liar” and “Don’t give up the Golan.”
Their protest followed a demonstration Sunday night at Givat Shmuel, near Bnai Brak, at which right-wing activists and settlement leaders joined ranks with the aim of toppling the Rabin government and preventing any compromise on the Golan.