News Analysis: As Mideast Peace Train Gathers Speed, Syria is Still Waiting at the Station

Amid a Middle East peace process that is steaming along on several fronts, Syria remains the wild card.

As U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher completed his fourth round of shuttle diplomacy in the region in three months, there were mixed signals regarding the status of the long deadlocked Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

At the same time, Israeli negotiators sat down this week with their Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts to seek agreement on the outstanding issues facing them.

And Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to try to iron out some of their publicly aired disagreements.

But Syria remains adamant in its refusal to negotiate directly with Israel, preferring to have Christopher serve as go-between. It is a role the secretary has promised to repeat in September, when he is scheduled to return to the region for another round of diplomacy.

As an American official traveling home with Christopher on Tuesday reportedly said, it is preferable to have the U.S. secretary play the intermediary role rather than have Israel and Syria endlessly repeat their positions with no show of progress.

For months now, those stances have been the same, with Syria demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace, and Israel calling for a detailed nature of the peace that will be established before it starts making a phased withdrawal from the Golan.

Even with Christopher serving as intermediary, there were no dramatic breakthroughs reported this week on the Syrian-Israeli track.

But all three parties seem satisfied that these periodic indirect talks are a worthwhile process with slow but real progress being made.

CAN’T REPORT INCREMENTAL PROGRESS

Using his carefully polished diplomatic tone, Christopher told reporters during his flight home Tuesday, “I do not feel I can report incremental progress on specific issues.”

But he added that he felt he had left Israeli and Syrian leaders “with a good deal for them to think about.”

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was more optimistic about the results of the Christopher trip, telling reporters Monday it was his impression that “further progress was made” following the secretary’s five-hour session with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus on Sunday.

On another positive note, American and Israeli officials were pleased that Syrian television had aired substantial footage of Monday’s events at Aqaba, where Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein had met after the opening of the first border crossing between Israel and Jordan.

No editorial comment or criticism accompanied the Syrian television coverage, which some observers feel was aired to prepare the Syrians for eventual negotiations with Israel.

Similarly, Syrian television coverage of the July 25-26 Rabin-Hussein summit in Washington — where the two signed a declaration officially ending the 46-year state of war between their countries — was seen as an important indication of Damascus’ desire to be seen as participating, albeit obliquely, in Middle East peacemaking.

In the meantime, Rabin and Arafat met Wednesday at the Erez border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel to review the state of ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PLO.

The Rabin-Arafat meeting is especially significant as it comes straight after Monday’s high-profile opening of the border crossing some two miles north of Eilat and Aqaba.

The fast evolving Israel-Jordan peace process has caused strains in the Jordan-PLO relationship. The Palestinians are irritated by Israel’s recognition, in the July 25 Washington Declaration, of Jordan’s special status as guardian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

And some Palestinians also feel that the Jordanian track threatens to overshadow the Israel-PLO track, where much still needs to be negotiated and implemented.

A PLO team, led by Arafat aide Yasser Abed Rabbo and East Jerusalem leader Faisal Husseini, was in Amman for talks this week with senior Jordanian officials. They were meeting to discuss the Jerusalem issue in an effort to ease the strains and reach some understanding.

ARAFAT MAY BE CREATING WAKF ALTERNATIVE

As a backdrop to this mission, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Monday that Arafat is considering the creation of a Palestinian religious body in Jerusalem to vie with the Wakf, the Jordanian-funded, 2,400-strong religious “civil service” that runs the Mosques of al-Aksa and Omar on the Temple Mount, as well as other Muslim religious properties in the city.

Another PLO negotiating team led by Nabil Sha’ath is meanwhile in its fourth week of talks with Israel in Cairo, where the two sides are pressing ahead on the “early empowerment” agenda.

This represents the next step in the Israel-PLO negotiating process whereby five major areas of civilian life — health, education, welfare, tourism and taxes — will come under Palestinian control not only in the autonomous regions of Gaza and Jericho, but throughout the West Bank as well.

Rabin and Arafat focused both on this problem and on the question — still shrouded in uncertainty — of the timing for elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Under the terms of the declaration of principles signed last September in Washington, the elections were to have been held this summer.

But it now seems clear that even a tentative October date will be missed; Sha’ath has recently spoken of December.

But at the same time, Israeli officials this week pressed ahead with the advances made on the Jordanian front in both Washington and Aqaba by holding two sets of meetings this week with their counterparts from Amman.

At one meeting at the Moriah Plaza Hotel on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, and at another held near the newly opened Eilat-Aqaba border crossing, the two sides discussed such outstanding nuts-and-bolts issues as water rights, borders, security and tourism.

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