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Christopher Sees Slim Prospects for Reopening Israeli-Syrian Talks

August 6, 1994

SHANNON, Ireland (AP) _ Returning to the Middle East again, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wants to convince Syrian President Hafez Assad he is central to that Mideast peacemaking even after other Arab leaders have concluded agreements with Israel.

But Christopher’s expectations of unlocking the stalled Israel-Syrian talks are low.

″There is unlikely to be any substantive breakthrough,″ Christopher said before starting his fourth trip to the area within three months’ time. And a senior aide said Friday en route to Alexandria, Egypt: ″Neither side at this point has heard what it wants to hear from the other.″

After a refueling stop here, Christopher plans to meet Saturday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who declared last week that Assad ″is much more flexible and he wants peace″ with Israel.

The focus of the stalemate is the Golan Heights, a strategic enclave Israel won from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and has successfully used as a buffer to prevent cross-border attacks.

Assad insists Israel relinquish all of the territory, but Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wants to hear Syria’s peace terms before considering a total pullout.

Rabin also has called for a resumption of direct talks with Syria, which were suspended last February in Washington. But at this stage Assad is content to negotiate through Christopher, who has accepted the go-between role as the only available option.

Still, a senior aide, who demanded anonymity in talking to reporters on Christopher’s U.S. Air Force jet, acknowledged, ″There can be no deal that is not done directly.″

He said Christopher hoped in his talks in Jerusalem and Damascus to create an ″environment″ that would make direct Israeli-Syrian negotiations possible. But if they resumed direct discussions now, the twos sides only would engage in a ″recitation of their positions,″ the aide said.

Rabin has offered to give up at least part of the Golan Heights and to uproot 13,000 Jewish settlers, while Assad in May provided the Israeli leader via Christopher with some elements of his peace offer. Neither side was satisfied.

In the meantime, Israel and Jordan signed a non-aggression pact. On Monday, Christopher plans to cross the border between them in a symbolic gesture of a new mood in the Middle East. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, meanwhile, are working to expand Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank.

This leaves Assad as the odd-man-out in Arab peacemaking with Israel. President Clinton has assured Assad by telephone, though, that he was not being forgotten, and Christopher’s return to the region after a trip in late July is designed partly to reaffirm Syria’s importance to U.S. policymakers.

But the senior U.S. official said Assad was unlikely to follow the lead of King Hussein of Jordan and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and conclude agreements with Israel that leave difficult details to be worked out later.

Assad ″is much more likely to have the details hammered out in advance, completely or nearly completely,″ the official said.

In Alexandria, Christopher may meet with Arafat for the second time in less than a month. In July, in Gaza, he told the PLO leader to adopt reliable accounting methods or risk not receiving some of the aid pledged to the Palestinians by the United States and other donors.

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