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Israel and Syria Toughen Rhetoric, Dimming Chances of Early Progress

Israel and Syria are engaged in an escalating war of words.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, caught off guard by Israel’s secret negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Norway, initially gave only conditional approval to the product of those talks: the interim self-rule agreement signed last month in Washington.

But in recent days, Assad has grown openly critical of the agreement and has maintained publicly that the PLO broke ranks with the Arab bloc in forging a separate peace with Israel.

In turn, Israeli leaders, far from attempting to mollify Damascus, have dug in their heels and are demanding that Syria clearly define the nature of the peace it wants to establish with Israel.

Failing that, say the Israelis, there can be little hope of progress on the Syrian negotiating track.

The heat on this ongoing verbal battle was turned up this week when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa declared that his country would boycott the Washington peace talks if they remained “sterile.”

In response, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that he would not be “threatened” by Syrian demands.

Rabin told reporters during a visit to Nazareth on Sunday that Israel is committed to the negotiations with Syria and would accommodate itself to any change in timetable that Damascus requested.

But he added that reaching peace with the Palestinians “does not mean that we must automatically reach an agreement with other parties, if the conditions are not yet ripe.”

Rather than offer any concessions to Damascus, Rabin stated bluntly, “Syria need peace just as much as Israel does.”

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres directed his own barbs at Damascus on Sunday, saying in an Israel Television interview that Syria “cannot disturb the implementation of the Israeli-PLO agreement.”

ANOTHER VISIT BY CHRISTOPHER?

Israeli policy-makers seem to be interested in delaying the hour of truth with Syria until after Israeli public opinion gets adjusted to the agreement with the PLO. They fear that Israelis may find it too difficult to swallow both agreements — which will involve territorial concessions — in one blow.

With the Syrians promising to boycott the next round of talks in Washington and the Israelis retorting that they will not be bullied by the Syrians, many here believe that Washington should step in — and quickly.

According to predictions by Israeli sources, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is likely to shuttle between Jerusalem and Damascus next month in a bid to put new momentum into the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process.

Dennis Ross, Christopher’s special coordinator for the peace talks, was making his own trip this week to various Middle East capitals, with a scheduled stop in Jerusalem on Wednesday followed by a visit to Damascus.

Ross may also head to Tunis for talks with the PLO during his trip, say U.S. officials.

In Washington, the State Department said one purpose of Ross’ trip is to ascertain whether or not another set of talks in Washington is the preferred next step for the peace process.

Department spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters Monday that both the Israelis and Palestinians had expressed “strong interest in resuming discussions here in Washington.”

But for the moment, the Clinton administration has decided to defer the next round of the Washington talks until after Thanksgiving.

The Americans want to avoid a situation in which one of the parties fails to turn up at a scheduled round of negotiations.

NO AGREEMENT BEFORE NEXT SPRING?

The Israelis and Palestinians are meanwhile pushing ahead with their negotiations to implement the self-rule accord.

Indeed, the impressive singlemindedness on the part of these two new peace partners apparently has triggered a sense of suspicion, if not outright hostility, among policy-makers in Syria.

Damascus is worried that the Rabin government wants to keep the Syrian negotiations “on the back burner” while proceeding to implement its pact with the PLO.

To the Americans, and also to the Egyptians, the Israeli leaders profess themselves to be as intent and serious today on making peace with Syria as they were before the breakthrough in Oslo.

But Rabin says the Syrians have to this day not specified their readiness to establish a “full peace” with Israel — a peace marked by open borders as well as by full diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations.

Only when he is satisfied that this is what Assad intends will the Israeli prime minister be prepared to negotiate the extent and terms of an Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights.

The Egyptian government, which sees itself fulfilling a key middleman role, is seeking to assure both Israel and Syria of the other’s commitment and sincerity.

Significantly though, even the Egyptians recognize that the frenetic pace of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will inevitably take a toll on the Israeli-Syrian track.

In an interview on Israel Television this week, Egyptian top presidential aide Osama el-Baz urged Israel to move ahead in its negotiations with Syria.

But he nonetheless acknowledged that a realistic target date for a declaration of principles between the two countries would be “early spring.”

That time frame would probably disappoint the American secretary of state and his Middle East peace team, who are looking for quicker progress.

But it represents a hardheaded assessment, by a central and seasoned player in regional diplomacy, of what is attainable.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Deborah Kalb in Washington.)

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