Dismissed as a virtual lost cause before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli-Syrian peace has moved squarely off the back burner and onto the diplomatic center stage.
In meetings with President Clinton during his first visit here since he took charge of Israel last month, Prime Minister Shimon Peres injected a new urgency into making peace with one of the Jewish state’s northern neighbors.
“Together, we shall stay the cause and, with firm resolve, reach a destiny of lasting and a secure peace; a peace for the whole of the Middle East, Arabs and Jews, Jews and Arabs,” Peres said at a joint news conference with Clinton after their meeting Monday.
“This was Yitzhak Rabin’s quest; it is my commitment,” Peres said.
For his part, Clinton pledged to stand behind Peres and Israel.
“As Israel continues to take risks for a lasting and comprehensive peace, the United States will stand with you to minimize those risks and to ensure your success,” Clinton said.
Turning to Peres, Clinton added, “I pledge to you personally, Shimon, that I will be your partner in peace.”
Although the two leaders refused to divulge details, one sign that there may be movement on the Israeli-Syrian was Clinton’s announcement that he was sending Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region over the weekend.
Christopher plains to visit Damascus on Friday and Jerusalem on Saturday in an effort to restart the stalled talks.
Syrian President Hafez Assad abruptly broke off security talks last year.
Syria has demanded an Israeli commitment to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights before restaring negotiations. Israeli officials have asked for a specific definition of peace and security arrangements before making a commitment to territorial concessions.
Israel has, however, willingness to embark on a phased withdrawal from the region.
Peres said he “would not exclude any method” to restart talks with Syria.
Clinton was unable to persuade Peres to declare publicly to what extent Israel was willing to withdraw, according to U.S. officials.
Clinton also said he had spoken with Assad on Monday.
“President Assad told me he was committed to do his best to move the peace process forward,” Clinton said.
“Very frankly, as sad as it is to say, I think the Syrian leader and the Syrian people now see the exceptional price that former Prime Minister Rabin and Prime Minister Peres have been willing to pay, in their quest for peace,” Clinton said.
“The atmosphere is better than it was before. I think that is the fundamental new reality here,” Clinton said.
Peres devoted much of his public comments to thank Clinton for his remarks after the Rabin assassination Clinton’s farewell – “Shalom, chaver” – has become a slogan in Israel.
Talks between American and Israeli officials about a formal strategic alliance between Israel and the United States as an incentive for the Jewish state to trade the Golan for peace have reached no conclusion.
A senior American official said formalization of the relationship “is not being seriously explored.”
Although Clinton and Peres dedicated the bulk of their one-hour meeting to discussing the peace process, they found time to formalize a plan for U.S.- Israeli space cooperation.
The United States will conduct Israeli experiments – having to do with making desert land arable – aboard both manned and unmanned space flights.
NASA will also begin training Israeli astronauts for an eventual mission to the planned U.S.-Russia space station, officials said.
An Israeli physician and amateur pilot, Eran Schenker, has reportedly already been chosen to participate in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Also his on Peres’ agenda is the fate of Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel who is serving a life sentence for his crime.
Peres presented Clinton with a letter requesting clemency for Pollard.
Clinton was noncommittal with Peres on the Pollard issue and later told reporters, “If he requests executive clemency, I will, of course, review that request as I would anyone who requested it.”
“But he has to make a request and it has to come through the ordinary channels before I can do that,” Clinton said.
During his visit Peres met with Christopher, Secretary of Defense William Perry and Gen. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
After meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday, Peres was scheduled to address a joint meeting of the House and Senate and then meet with hundreds of Jews expected here for the National Peace Advocacy Day.
Meanwhile, as Peres held talks in Washington, there were stirrings from Cabinet ministers back home expressing doubt about reaching an agreement with Syria.
In a meeting with residents of the Golan, minister without portfolio, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, reportedly said he would not support a full pullback from the Golan.
“I cannot say that he completely supported our position,” Katzrin resident Avi Ze’ira, who took part in the meeting, later told Israel Radio.
“But he clearly stated that a full withdrawal from the Golan, which as we know is the policy of the current government, is completely unacceptable to him.”
Ze’ira said Amital opposed the idea out of concern for Israeli security, as well as the rift it could cause in Israeli society.
The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, speaking to students in Haifa this week, said no technology is an equal substitute to the strategic value of the Golan in the threat of war.
“If at the end of the peace process there is a threat of war, then the Golan Heights as invaluable strategic value,” Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak said. “But the central question is what kind of peace is being discussed, and where is it possible to make concessions.”
This view was echoed by Ehud Barak, Israel’s new foreign minister and a former chief of staff, who spoke at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting this week.
Asked whether he had softened his position on the Golan Heights since leaving the defense establishment and entering politics, Barak said the depth of a withdrawal would be determined relative to the quality of the peace.
The foreign minister said claims that his position now supported a full withdrawal on the Golan were to simplistic and incorrect.
“From a purely military point of view, there could be such a demand to stay on part of the Golan Heights, but in a democracy it is the political leadership that makes the decision,” Barak told Israel Radio. “Whatever that is, the armed forces will come and provide us with the appropriate security and early warning arrangements.”
Meanwhile, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu maintained that Israel could reach a peace agreement with Syria and keep the Golan.
“Assad will adjust his expectations to what he thinks he can get from the current government,” he told reporters.