U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrapped up his 13th round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, having secured his main objective: the resumption of military talks between Israel and Syria.
Although the talks were essentially agreed upon last month, Christopher officially announced that top-level military officials from Israel and Syria will resume their negotiations later this month in Washington.
Christopher, returning to Israel on Saturday night after meeting earlier in the day with Syrian President Hafez Assad, said the June 27 talks in Washington would bring together the chief of staff of Israeli Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and his Syrian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Hikmat Shihabi.
The talks are expected to last two or three days, Christopher said. After a break to allow the two sides to review the discussions, negotiations are scheduled to resume in Washington at a lower military talks comes after similar negotiations in Washington in December were abruptly halted by Syria.
The two sides are trying to reach agreement on security arrangements for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria.
Christopher also announced that, along with the military talks, negotiations would resume between the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors on non-military issues.
The secretary offered a highly optimistic assessment of the prospects for achieving an agreement on the Israeli-Syrian track.
“I think that this trip has reinforced my feeling that there is a tremendous opportunity to move now toward a goal of a comprehensive peace, perhaps a better opportunity than at any time during the two-and-a-half years that I have been in office,” he said.
Christopher also announced that President Clinton was willing to return to the region if his presence would help move long-troubled talks forward.
But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said later that the president had no immediate plans to visit the region. He said Christopher’s statement was only intended to indicate that Clinton was willing to “go the extra mile” to achieve peace.
Christopher, in addition to visiting Israel and Syria, traveled to Egypt last Friday for a three-way meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The session, which brought the Israeli and Egyptian leaders together for the first time in four months, was intended to clear up recent tensions between the two countries that arose over an Egyptian demand that Israel sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a move that Israel refused.
“I believe we turned a new page in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, one that is promising as we build for the future,” Christopher said after the meeting.
Christopher also met over the weekend with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank Jericho enclave. He also made a short stopover in Jordan on Sunday before flying home to Washington.
On the Israeli-Palestinian track, Arafat called on Israel to meet a previously agreed upon July 1 deadline for reaching agreement on implementing the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
Rabin said last Friday that he doubted the talks could be completed by July 1.
Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo, responding to Rabin’s comments, said Saturday that the Palestinian Authority would seek international arbitration if the deadline is not met.