News Analysis: Rabin Prepares Home Ground Amid Talk of New Syrian Talks

With Israel and Syria set to resume direct negotiations in Washington, Israeli leaders are now attempting to prepare domestic opinion for the prospect of withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The dramatic announcement of the talks’ resumption came after Israel and Syria engaged this week in intense, sustained and detailed negotiations mediated by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Syria’s pledge to reopen talks capped an eight-day trip of shuttle diplomacy that took christopher to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.

Getting the stalled Washington talks restarted was the immediate goal that Christopher and his aides had set, acutely aware that time was slipping away.

“Time is of the essence,” Christopher told reporters when he announced the talks’ resumption Tuesday.

With both Israel and the United States set to enter a campaign season later this year for their respective national elections in 1996, many believe that there is little time left for a breakthrough on the Israeli-Syrian track.

Although the ambassadorial-level talks were scheduled to resume as early as this week or next, it was still unclear as christopher flew home Tuesday after a long and grueling day in Damascus, when or whether negotiations between the military chiefs of staff of the two countries would be held again.

In December, Syrian President Hafez Assad suspended both the political and military negotiations in Washington.

In Jerusalem, the mood among senior government policy-makers brightened markedly early in the week as it became clear that the secretary’s shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus had touched some concrete issues.

The talks reportedly involved recommendations for specific security procedures that would go into effect following an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

According to observers, little of the discussions had to do with the extent or timing of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, discussion that, in the past, had led to a deadlock in the negotiations.

The fact that this time Syrian President Hafez Assad was interested in getting down to details with the secretary was seen, both by the Americans and the Israelis, as a cause for optimism.

This was the case especially because U.S. officials, from Christopher to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had learned over the years that it is entirely possible to spend six or seven hours closeted with Assad and manage to discuss virtually nothing of substance.

As the signs from Damascus brightened, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres issued a series of deliberately crafted statements designed to ready domestic opinion for the need to confront the prospect of a Golan withdrawal.

In forceful remarks Tuesday after a briefing with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Rabin pointedly spoke of the then-Likud government’s decision in 1978 to cede all of the Sinai in return for peace with Egypt.

Rabin dubbed that move a “precedent” and insisted that Likud, which now stands in opposition to his government, cannot now shrug off that historic decision as a mistake.

“This government knows that there is no chance to attain peace without withdrawal,” Rabin told reporters outside the committee room Tuesday.

For his part, Peres, in remarks Monday to the Labor Party’s Knesset caucus, vowed that the government would move toward peace — and pay the territorial price — despite its sliding standings in the opinion polls.

Ultimately, Peres said, it would be the success of its peace program that would decide Labor’s fate at the ballot box.

In reaction, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his party to introduce a bill in the Knesset next week calling for the dissolution of the Knesset and early elections.

In remarks to reporters, Netanyahu underscored the current poll readings, asserting that if elections were held now, Rabin would “lose, and lose big.”

Coupled with their planned and coordinated effort to win back public opinion for a possible resumption of progress on the Syrian track, Rabin and Peres also have been careful to hedge their determined-sounding statements with caution.

Thus, while pointing to the Sinai as precedent for territorial withdrawal, Rabin insisted in his briefing to the Knesset committee Tuesday that the Israeli position was “almost not changed.”

To prove his point, Rabin stressed that there was still no agreement on the key elements that form the backbone of an eventual peace treaty with Syria.

Those areas include: border demarcations, a timetable for withdrawal, security arrangement and a testing period that would usher in some form of normalized relations such as diplomatic relations.

Peres was similarly cautious, saying the new Israeli proposals were in the realm of “breaking through psychological barriers” rather than in the realm of substance.

On the procedural plane, Washington and Jerusalem are hoping that a resumption of talks between the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors in Washington will be followed by more talks between the army chiefs of staff of the two countries.

The negotiations will involve the two countries’ ambassadors to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich of Israel and Walid Muallem of Syria.

Rabinovich, while toeing the cautious line laid down by his superiors, noted publicly this week that the secretary’s negotiations in Damascus had been “more serious and covered a larger area” than before.

But Syria has not agreed to follow-up with such high-level military meetings, or to accept an Israeli proposal that the talks be raised to a foreign ministerial level.

Christopher’s Middle East specialist, Dennis Ross, is scheduled to return to the Middle East within the next two weeks in an effort to get the Israeli and Syrian chiefs of staff to rejoin the negotiations.

The new note of determination sounded by rabin and Peres in regard to Syria this week echoed a similar tone they adopted with regard to the Palestinian- Israel track, which has also faced near-stagnation in the recent past.

Just hours before Christopher’s arrival in Israel on March 9, Peres met with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat at the Gaza border.

After that meeting, Peres declared that a “breakthrough” had been reached, with the two sides agreeing to a target date of July 1 to reach an accord on the redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank, Palestinian elections and the transfer of further areas of responsibility to the Palestinians in the West Bank.

The initial reaction among many seasoned observers was one of skepticism; Israeli-Palestinian target dates have come and gone in the past with no real progress made.

Arafat himself, in the days following his meeting with Peres, tended to play down the magnitude of the supposed breakthrough.

But it was clear from the way Rabin and Christopher publicly welcomed the agreement that they were determined to use it as a way of rebuilding momentum and a sense of buoyancy in the region.

In addition to the progress he ascribed to the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Syrian tracks, Christopher also was upbeat about his shutting ventures elsewhere in the region.

In Egypt, he held what he described as valuable talks with President Hosni Mubarak on the issue of nuclear weapons in the region.

In Jordan, he assured King Hussein that his kingdom will get full relief of its outstanding debt to the United States despite recent congressional opposition to the move.

And in Saudi Arabia, he got the Persian Gulf states to agree to back continued sanctions against Iraq — a move that was approved by the U.N. Security Council a day later.

He also reportedly secured long-promised financial from the Gulf states for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. In his meeting with Arafat, Christopher also outlined new American aid for the Palestinians in the form of military trucks and expertise.

He also received assurances from Arafat that the Palestinians would take new measures to “pre-empt terror.”

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