Rabin to Assad: a Public Handshake Would Advance Stalled Negotiations

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is calling on Syrian President Hafez Assad to engage in high-profile, direct negotiations with Israel in order to advance the two countries’ long-stalled peace talks.

No progress will be made with Syria unless Assad takes a series of public steps to persuade the Israeli public of his desire to make peace, Rabin said following a 90-minute summit meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held Sunday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Mubarak, Rabin said his high-profile meetings with Jordan’s King Hussein in Washington last week were just the sort of confidence-building steps that Assad would have to take to get the Israeli-Syrian negotiations back on track.

Rabin said he would like to see Assad express greater flexibility on the Golan Heights issue, “or a handshake in public, such as the handshake with King Hussein on the White House lawn last week. Or even something less.”

The Rabin-Mubarak meeting — which came only days after Israel and Jordan signed the Washington Declaration ending 46 years of hostilities between the two countries — focused on finding ways to score a success in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Those negotiations have been stalled for months over a Syrian insistence that Israel withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Damascus.

Israel has been offering a phased withdrawal, but first wants a Syrian commitment to a “full” peace with Israel that will include open borders, free trade and a full exchange of ambassadors.

During Sunday’s news conference, Rabin said he understood Israel would have to meet “certain requirements” made by Syria to get the negotiations moving again, but he would not say what those requirements were.

MUBARAK BELIEVES DEAL WITH SYRIA IS NEAR

Mubarak told reporters that he had discerned during his personal meetings with Assad greater flexibility on the part of the Syrian president where the Israeli talks were concerned.

“I cannot speak in the name of Assad, but I know that Syria is sincerely interested in a peace agreement with Israel,” Mubarak said. He also voiced the hope that Israel and Syria would reach an agreement before the end of the year.

Both he and Rabin said they were looking forward to another visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who in his previous rounds of shuttle diplomacy has acted as go-between for Rabin and Assad, but has to date been unable to get the talks re-ignited.

Christopher is scheduled to return to the region in mid-August.

The Rabin-Mubarak meeting took place a day after the Egyptian president flew to Saudi Arabia for unscheduled talks with King Fahd.

Mubarak was expected to send an emissary to Damascus to brief Assad on his discussions with Rabin in advance of Christopher’s return to the region.

Before leaving Jerusalem, Rabin met alone with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and reportedly invited him along on the trip to Taba.

But Peres declined the invitation, citing urgent work in Jerusalem and adding that Rabin would be meeting alone with Mubarak in any event.

The two men are reportedly undergoing a period of tension in their long and frequently strained relationship.

During his trip to Washington last week, Rabin, in conversations and briefings, reportedly belittled Peres’ contribution to the diplomatic breakthrough with Jordan. In his public addresses, Rabin barely mentioned the foreign minister, who is widely regarded as the main architect of the government’s peace initiatives.

Peres was so hurt that at one stage he apparently told his confidants he was considering resigning.

Labor Party sources said that despite the current tension, they expected the two men would continue working together in relative harmony on the peace process.

(JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.).

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