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Glowing Talk but Glaring Omissions in the Historic Clinton-assad Summit

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Waves of warm enthusiasm, emanating from Geneva, washed over a wary and worried Jerusalem early this week, following President Clinton’s historic meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Sunday.

Some of the wariness here was prompted by the assessment that all the glowing optimism about what had been achieved in the talks seemed to be coming from the Americans rather than the Syrians.

“The tone was too positive to be disappointing, but it was too general to be satisfactory,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said of the talks, capturing a feeling prevalent among many officials and observers here.

A similar assessment was made by Rafael Eitan, the leader of the staunchly nationalist Tsomet Party, who said Assad’s statements at a news conference after the meeting “go no farther than his past vague generalities.”

During their meeting, which lasted more than five and a half hours, Clinton and Assad pledged to support a “peace of the brave” in the Middle East.

But as Peres said, the two leaders’ comments were long on generalities and short on specifics.

At a press conference after their marathon session – the first meeting between American and Syrian leaders since 1990 – Clinton assured Israel and the world that Syria was ready for full peace and a normalization of relations with the Jewish state.

Not merely an end of war, Clinton insisted, but normal relations – “like between good neighbors.”

He had heard this from Assad unequivocally, Clinton said, and now it would be up to the two sides, Syria and Israel, to make historic decisions for peace.

And in his opening statement, Assad said, “Syria seeks a just and comprehensive peace with Israel as a strategic choice that secures Arab rights, ends the Israeli occupation and enables our peoples in the region to live in peace, security and dignity.”

The trouble was that when the Syrian leader was pressed to provide details about the components of the envisaged peace, Assad was vague and waffling.

Also troubling were the host of issues left unresolved after the Clinton-Assad meeting.

No announcements were made about a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, nor about Syrian support of terrorist groups opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

On the Golan Heights on Sunday night, settlers and their sympathizers, unwilling to give up the Golan in return for vague promises of peace with Syria, mounted demonstrations and vowed a new wave of protests later in the week.

In the Knesset on Monday, Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur said the government would not make major territorial concessions on the Golan before holding a nationwide referendum.

“I want to clarify if the territorial price demanded of us on the Golan Heights is significant, the government will bring this to a public referendum,” he said.

Gur provided little elaboration on the subject, but he did confirm to the Knesset that this was the government’s position.

Following the Geneva meeting, Clinton dispatched the State Department’s Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk of the National Security Council to brief Israeli leaders on the details of the Geneva meeting.

They met late Sunday night with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and on Monday with Peres and other Israeli officials.

Ross and his aides stressed the sunny side of Assad’s public performance. In particular, they noted the Syrian president’s pronouncement that his country now had a “strategic” commitment to peace with Israel.

This, they said, contrasted starkly with Assad’s oft-stated “strategy” during the 1980s – to attain military parity with the Jewish state.

Ross, in comments to Israeli reporters, spoke of Assad’s having “broken new ground.” He said the Geneva meeting provided a solid basis for the resumption of the bilateral peace talks in Washington later this month.

Rabin was quoted in the Israeli media Monday as saying he wanted to hear the promising declarations attributed to Assad by the Americans from Assad himself.

Peres, too, while noting the favorable tone of the Geneva press conference, said it was unclear just how that tone was to be translated, on the part of the Syrians, into the concrete practicalities of peace.

Some of the post-summit speculation here focused on the possibility of a Rabin- Assad meeting in the near future.

Rabin would then indeed be able to hear for himself, directly from Assad, the statements and signals that had so encouraged Clinton at the Geneva meeting.

It was significant that the Geneva press conference was broadcast repeatedly, and in its entirety, in the Syrian media on Sunday and Monday.

This represents an undeniable shift in Syria’s tactics – and perhaps the beginning of an effort to draw public opinion away from years of indoctrination against any notion of reaching peace with Israel.

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