Israel and Syria Still Far Apart As Focus Shifts to Northern Neighbor

As U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepares to return to the Middle East in an effort to breathe new life into the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is maintaining that the two countries are still “substantially apart” on major components of their negotiations.

In a radio interview on Monday, Rabin said the two sides were still in dispute over four main points: the depth of the envisaged Israeli withdrawal from the Golan; the timetable for the withdrawal; the number of phases for the withdrawal; and the nature of the peace with Syria that will be established during each phase of the withdrawal.

Rabin’s assessment of the situation came one day after he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the Israeli-syrian negotiations.

The continuing gap between Israel and Syria shows how little has changed in the two side’s positions in the negotiations, which 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 in turn 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.

Christopher is scheduled to return to the region next week for another round of shuttle diplomacy to help bridge the gaps between Israel and Syria.

Following the 90-minute meeting with Mubarak at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, Rabin predicted that no progress would be made with Syria unless Syrian President Hafez Assad takes a series of public steps to persuade the Israeli public of his desire to make peace.

MUBARAK SOMEWHAT MORE OPTIMISTIC

Mubarak, who met with Assad last week to discuss the status of the negotiations with Israel, was somewhat more optimistic about the talks, telling reporters Assad had shown some flexibility.

Mubarak also voiced the hope that Israel and Syria would reach an agreement before the end of the year.

During his radio interview, Rabin welcomed a statement made Sunday by Moshe Katzav, chairman of the Likud’s Knesset faction, who suggested that the opposition accept the self-rule agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as a fait accompli.

Rabin, meanwhile, is scheduled to meet soon, perhaps as early as Sunday, with Jordan’s King Hussein near the Red Sea resorts of Eilat and Aqaba.

According to Israeli media reports, the two leaders will discuss opening borders between the two cities, which are about a mile apart.

The meeting will be the first since last week’s historic summit in Washington, where they signed an agreement officially ending their countries’ 46-year state of hostilities.

In related developments, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their talks last week in Cairo on areas of so-called “early empowerment,” designed to transfer key areas of civil administration to the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Agreements have been drawn up on two of five key areas — health and education — but Israeli sources say implementation could be delayed or hampered because of the Palestinians’ lack of funds to establish and run a working administration.

Multilateral talks on the environment were also held in Cairo this week. Following their historic rapprochement in Washington last week, Israeli and Jordanian negotiators focused on the problem of flies and mosquitos, which have been plaguing farmers on both sides of the long border from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea.

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