NEW YORK (Feb. 7)
Hopes for meaningful progress in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks following President Clinton’s recent meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad have not yet materialized, according to Israeli officials.
While the Clinton-Assad meeting in Geneva last month may have created a “new climate” in Israeli-Syrian relations, “we do not see a change” in the bilateral peace negotiations, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Jewish organizational leaders here last week.
Those negotiations resumed in Washington two weeks ago, after a four-month hiatus, amid expectations that the two sides would finally break the deadlock that has plagued the talks since their inception.
Expectations were raised when Clinton reported after his meeting with Assad that the Syrian leader had said he was ready to establish normal relations with Israel, “like between good neighbors.”
Clinton administration officials initially described Assad’s stance as a breakthrough in the peace talks, but Israeli reaction was more subdued.
The problem, said Peres, is that Assad did not go as far as Clinton said he had. In his own statements, the Syrian leader promised only to work for a “new era of security and stability, in which normal peaceable relations among all shall dawn on the region.”
“We wish Assad would use the same words as Clinton,” Peres said in an address last Friday to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“Whereas Clinton was forthcoming and generous” in his remarks, Peres said, Assad was “economic and careful.
LITTLE KNOWN ABOUT SYRIAN-ISRAEL TALKS
“On the issue of peace, Clinton was clear, Assad was silent,” he said. “On the issue of security, Assad’s position was ambiguous.”
Little is known about what has actually transpired since the negotiations resumed in Washington. The talks have been held in a secret location in the hope that the absence of media scrutiny would spur progress.
But according to a senior Israeli official, the talks have made little headway. The Syrians are still refusing to spell out what kind of relations they are prepared to have with Israel, and until they do so, Israel is unwilling to specify the territorial concessions it is prepared to make on the Golan Heights.
The official suggested that one reason for the lack of progress may be disarray in Syrian ranks after the death of Assad’s son Bassel. The Israelis are under the impression that their Syrian counterparts are not receiving the guidance from Damascus they need before they can move forward, the official said.
Meanwhile, there were new signs of hope from the Middle East this week that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization would soon conclude arduous negotiations over the implementation of the autonomy accord they signed last September in Washington.
Peres, who had returned to Israel over the weekend, flew to Cairo on Monday evening, where he resumed talks with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. It was their third such meeting in as many weeks.
Israeli sources voiced optimism that longstanding differences about security issues could be resolved during this round of talks and that a final document could be signed shortly thereafter by Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Peres flew to Cairo after several discussions with Rabin. He was accompanied by Environment Minister Yossi Sarid; Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, head of planning for the Israel Defense Force; and a team of Foreign Ministry aides headed by Uri Savir, the ministry’s director-general.
PLO sources in Tunis and Cairo said their side wanted to be sure that Peres was authorized to conclude a deal. Nabil Sha’ath, a leading PLO negotiator, claimed last week that the two sides were ready to initial their accord — but that Peres pulled back after telephoning Rabin in Jerusalem.
Peres and Rabin have both insisted this weekend there are no substantive differences between them.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem.)