Summit Meeting with Syria Urged by Cabinet Ministers

Israeli Cabinet ministers are now pushing for a summit meeting between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

The ministers feel such a meeting is “absolutely vital,” Health Minister Haim Ramon told reporters Wednesday following a five-hour Cabinet session.

The ministers, who met Wednesday rather than last Sunday because of Rosh Hashanah, heard reports from the heads of Israel’s various negotiating teams at the Middle East peace talks in Washington.

The negotiating teams returned to Israel last week at the conclusion of four weeks of bilateral talks with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Briefing the ministers were Itamar Rabinovich, Elyakim Rubinstein and Yosef Hadass, the heads of the teams negotiating respectively with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians, and Lebanon.

“I don’t think there will be progress toward a psychological and practical breakthrough in the absence of such a summit,” Ramon said. “The prime minister himself has spoken publicly of the need for top-level contacts.”

Other Cabinet sources said Israel needs authoritative word from Syria on how Damascus views the “nature of the peace” and on issues of security. Given the centralization of the regime in Syria, that word has to come from Assad himself, Israeli officials maintain.

Israel’s negotiator with the Syrians in the previous Likud government criticized the Cabinet for publicly angling for a summit with Syria.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Yossi Ben-Aharon, who was dropped by Rabin from the negotiating team and is now retired from the civil service, said a summit could be effective only if desired by both sides.

There have been mixed reactions here to statements made by Syria over the past few days in public and in private. While those close to Rabin have voiced pessimism, figures close to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have reacted more optimistically.

Some officials stressed the hard-line nature of the address delivered at the U.N. General Assembly on Monday by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

But others saw a basic change in attitude, reflected in Sharaa’s statement supporting a “full peace” with Israel, which has been elaborated by some Syrian policy-makers to include normal diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations with Israel.

Israel’s unusually high-profile summit overture may be aimed at the Bush administration as well as at the Syrians, according to some political commentators here. They say Rabin believes a summit involving himself, Assad and President Bush — which is probably the only type of face-to-face meeting with the Israeli leader that Assad would consider — could dramatically benefit the electoral standing of the U.S. president.

In publicly calling for such a summit, therefore, Rabin may in effect be challenging Assad to do his bit to help Bush too — or be seen as ducking an opportunity to help the president.

If no summit takes place because of Syria’s refusal, and Bush is re-elected nevertheless, Israel stands to benefit in the attitude of a grateful president.

In the event of a win in November by Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, Israel’s summit overture would be seen as a bold peacemaking move aimed solely at the Arab side without reference to internal American electoral politics.

NEXT STORY