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Syria May Be Ready to Accept a Gradual Israeli Withdrawal

Syria may now be prepared to accept a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a package that would establish a framework for peace between the two countries.

Lending some grounds for this belief, the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin reported this weekend that Damascus was ready to accept an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan if it were carried out within a “reasonable” or “acceptable” time period.

Although the paper did not spell out what the Syrian government regarded as reasonable or acceptable, the report was more favorable than previous Syrian press accounts regarding Israeli proposals made earlier this month for resuming the long-deadlocked Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

The article appeared as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Damascus on Sunday for what was his second round of Damascus-Jerusalem shuttle diplomacy this month.

At the beginning of May, Christopher conveyed a package of proposals from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Syrian President Hafez Assad for establishing peace between the two countries.

Among the proposals was a call for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights over a period of eight years in exchange for the establishment of a full peace between Israel and Syria, complete with open borders, free trade and the exchange of ambassadors.

Syria countered at the time with a public and private rejection of the plan. It also rejected the notion of exchanging ambassadors before Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan.

CHRISTOPHER PLAYS DOWN EXPECTATIONS

Before departing for Syria this week, Christopher attempted to play down expectations for this new round of diplomacy.

“This is a long process, a long road,” he said in Geneva over the weekend before departing for Damascus. “I hope to help get the parties move a little closer together, but I don’t have any great ambitions for this trip.”

Christopher was scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday. He was also planning to visit the West Bank town of Jericho later in the week to see firsthand how the transfer from Israeli to Palestinian authority is proceeding.

Rabin, meanwhile, is said to have told U.S. officials that he is not prepared to make any further proposals to Syria over and above those he made earlier in the month.

Israeli officials say the prime minister’s earlier proposals represent a considerable concession on his part. All that Syria has done, they charge, is adhere stubbornly to the demand that Israel mount a total withdrawal from the Golan.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres echoed Christopher’s cautionary signals that the latest round of shuttle diplomacy will not necessarily produce any change in the Syrian-Israel negotiations.

“There’s nothing earth-shattering about Syria’s latest responses. But there is a certain dynamic at work, and we’ve simply got to carry on and try to push the negotiations,” said Peres.

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