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News Analysis: U.S. Coaxing Syria to Stay Involved As Israel Ponders How Fast to Move

President Clinton reportedly has been on the phone a lot lately with Hafez Assad, using his vaunted abilities as a pitchman to get the Syrian president not only to recognize the new order shaping up in the Middle East but to help bring it about.

Clinton’s persuasive efforts were directed at coaxing and cajoling the longtime Syrian leader to support — or at least not oppose — the momentous agreement signed in Washington between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The American president’s main argument, according to reports of these conversations, was that Syria’s turn would come — and soon.

The Syrian track of the Middle East peace process, Clinton sought to assure his interlocutor, has not been relegated to the “back burner” as a result of the dramatic breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians.

On the contrary, the United States has continued to believe in the necessity of a comprehensive approach to regional peacemaking, and is devoting its own energies toward ensuring that Damascus and Jerusalem move ahead as well.

As a tangible demonstration of the seriousness of Washington’s commitment, Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher have launched into a vigorous orchestration of international economic support for the proposed Palestinian autonomous region.

The intensity of this American commitment has certainly not been lost on Assad.

Indeed, his initial reservations about the Israeli-PLO agreement appear to have been toned down, if not muted, in the wake of the determined American diplomacy.

True to his old form this week, Assad termed the Israeli-PLO accord “a painful surprise” and asserted, in an interview with the Cairo daily A1 Akhbar, that Israel was the real winner in the deal.

But he also conceded that the prospects for comprehensive peace had improved as a result of the agreement.

CHRISTOPHER PLANNING NEW TRIP

Assad was reported to be planning a rare visit to Cairo at the end of the week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — himself a strong supporter of the Israel-PLO accord, which he helped nourish in secret meetings with the parties and which he hopes to repeat on the Israeli-Syrian track.

Diplomatic sources say Secretary of State Christopher is planning to embark on a new round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Damascus after the Jewish holidays.

These sources say the secretary has urged Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to cooperate with the United States in assiduously avoiding any impression that Damascus is being “left out in the cold.”

Cynics said the underlying U.S. concern was that Washington itself not be left out of the peacemaking loop, and that the Israeli-PLO accord had been as painful a surprise to the Clinton administration as to the Damascus regime.

A more charitable understanding of U.S. efforts suggests that American policy-makers genuinely fear for the fragility of the Israeli-PLO agreement unless it is quickly shored up by progress on other tracks of the peace process.

The case of Jordan could be cited to illustrate that reasoning: Amman signed its own peace agenda with Israel the day after the historic White House signing ceremony between Israel and the PLO. But Jordanian officials immediately made it clear that a full peace treaty — which is within the two sides’ easy reach — would have to await further progress on other fronts.

Everyone wants to see what happens with the Israeli-PLO accord, but the Arab parties seem unwilling to take steps of their own that might in turn help the accord be realized effectively.

In any event, what seems clear is that Washington is anxious to prod Israel and Syria toward significant and swift progress.

The United States accepts, in effect, Israel’s basic demand that Syria provide a detailed and precise exposition of “the nature of peace” as seen from Damascus.

Washington wants to see all the same ingredients in that explanation as Israel does — “a full peace” with an exchange of ambassadors, open borders and free trade.

TIME FOR DRAMATIC MOVE ON GOLAN?

But by the same token, the United States wants a far-reaching move by Israel on the territorial side of the equation. Here Damascus is demanding a clear-cut undertaking by Israel to provide a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

And here, of course, is the political rub.

For Rabin and his government, buffeted by fierce controversy at home over the deal with the PLO, a domestic storm centering on the Golan could be more than it can weather.

To a certain degree, indeed, the PLO accord took the right wing in Israel off guard: The fight they had been preparing for was over the Golan.

Throughout the country, posters and placards challenged Rabin’s right to cede the strategic Heights — when suddenly it turned out that the enormous concessions he was contemplating were in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

Rabin himself indicated this week that he would prefer to consolidate the PLO agreement before turning to the Syrian front. In his talks with President Mubarak earlier this week, and later at a joint news conference with the Egyptian leader, Rabin stressed the need to test the agreement with the Palestinians through its implementation on the ground during the coming three to four months.

It seemed clear from his remarks that he would prefer to concentrate all of his attention on this fateful process rather than embark now on a second experiment with the Syrians, before he is confident that the gamble with PLO leader Yasser Arafat has paid off.

Some observers who claim to know the prime minister’s thinking say the basic problem is that Rabin has not yet formulated his own “bottom line” on the Golan land-for-peace equation.

According to these pundits, Foreign Minister Peres, architect of the agreement with the PLO, is trying to convince Rabin that the best option, both domestically and diplomatically, would be to go for a deal with Assad now, too.

It is Rabin who, in the weeks ahead, will have to decide whether to encourage a vigorous American diplomatic effort on the Israeli-Syrian track, or whether to try to cool Washington’s ardor until the Israeli agreement with the PLO has firmly taken root.

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