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Clinton Urges Assad on Mideast Peace

July 26, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton is urging Syrian President Hafez Assad to ``seize the moment of opportunity″ for peace negotiations with Israel.

In a letter sent over the weekend, Clinton told Assad he had confidence Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to hold peace talks after a three-year stalemate.

Clinton also invited Assad to stay in touch with him.

A U.S. official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said Clinton also told the Syrian leader about the four days of talks he held here with Barak.

The president told Assad ``this is a moment of opportunity to be taken advantage of,″ the official said.

Syria’s price for peace is return of the Golan Heights enclave along the border. Israel captured the strategic territory in the 1967 Mideast war, effectively shutting down a corridor used by Syrian tanks to move against Israel.

Barak, as Israel’s military chief of staff, publicly called for retaining the Golan Heights. But then he took the post of foreign minister in a Labor government willing to return most, if not all, of the land.

In his visit here, Barak spoke of a readiness to make a ``painful compromise″ for peace.

Clinton and Barak held talks in Morocco on Sunday with several Arab leaders who were with them at King Hassan’s funeral.

As the momentum for peace-making grew, Jordan’s King Abdullah II made an unannounced visit to Damascus on Monday to brief Assad on his discussions with Clinton and Barak at the funeral.

Clinton is sending Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Mideast in mid-August. She is expected to make Damascus one of her stops.

The official said Clinton offered no incentives to Assad to hold peace talks with Israel.

Syria is listed as a sponsor of terrorism, and by law cannot receive U.S. military and economic assistance. There are controls on the export of material that could have military application. And tax incentives are not given to U.S. businesses that invest in listed countries.

Peacemaking with Israel can be lucrative. Egypt and Jordan have been rewarded with U.S. aid for making peace with Israel, while Barak was promised a boost in U.S. military aid during his talks here.

Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk said last month that Assad ``leads us to believe he is keen on engaging Syria″ in renewed peace talks.

Syrian officials have stressed publicly that their country intends to recover the entire Golan Heights as its price for peace. Israel captured the strategic enclave as it defeated Syria, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states in the 1967 war.

``Our commitment to peace as a strategic option does not mean, in any way, approving a peace that is not based on the full restoration of the occupied Arab lands,″ Syrian parliament speaker Abdul-Kader Kaddoura said last month at a meeting of the Arab Parliamentarian Union.

After negotiations broke down three years ago, Syria claimed it had been assured by Israeli negotiators it could recover all of the Golan Heights for the right peace terms.

Israel and Syria differ over what negotiators agreed to in 1996, Danny Yatron, Barak’s chief security adviser, said recently.

Barak, while offering to pursue peace with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians simultaneously, said last week he wanted to make a ``fresh start.″

Assad, meanwhile, was reported to have described incoming Barak as ``honest, sincere and committed to peace,″ while Barak has told the Arab newspaper Al Hayat he saw Syria as a cornerstone of peace in the Middle East.

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