JERUSALEM — Israel liked the tone of Syrian President Hafez Assad's comments about peace between their countries but is reserving judgment on whether this was the strategic breakthrough for which the whole Middle East has been waiting.
"The general tone was positive, but it is still not clear what he means by peace," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said of Assad's statement after his meeting with President Clinton in Geneva. "Does it mean full diplomatic relations, open borders and free trade? We will have to wait for full details."
Two senior U.S. envoys were to brief Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Peres overnight on the details of Clinton's talks with Assad. Further discussions were planned for today, and officials said Israel will then begin to formulate its response to Assad.
But Rabin, challenged by both Assad and Clinton to make the "peace of the brave" after 45 years of hostility, said, "I believe that I, as a prime minister, and the government of Israel have proven by now that we are ready to take brave steps.
"The only question is, what is the definition of a brave step and what brave steps are taken by our partners in the peace negotiations--the Arab partners?" Rabin said.
Rabin, clearly cautious despite Clinton's assertion that Assad is committed to peace and normal relations between Israel and Syria, said: "I need to hear it from Assad too. Normalization has been mentioned by Syria in the past. The question is, how close it is to the concept of peace, what agenda is there for achieving peace and at what price from Israel?"
Israel and Syria have been negotiating terms of a peace treaty since October, 1991, but the talks have stalled over the issue of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.
Syria demands full withdrawal in return for peace. Israel has said it could make limited pullbacks but wants a commitment to total peace, with full diplomatic relations, open borders and free trade between the two countries.
After listening to the Clinton-Assad press conference, which was broadcast live from Geneva on Israeli radio and television, Peres said that even with his continued vagueness, Assad appeared to have done "the required minimum" to make the meeting with Clinton a success but "not the obligatory maximum" needed for peace.
"Assad's speech contained no elements we have not heard before, but his answers (to press conference questions) did--a little more," Peres said. "It is still too early to translate (this) into the language of negotiations."
His hope, Peres continued, was that Assad said much more to Clinton in their talks and that the two U.S. envoys--Dennis Ross, the State Department's peace talks coordinator, and Martin Indyk, the Mideast specialist at the National Security Council--would bring those details.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud Party, charged that Rabin is already prepared "to give Assad all the Golan Heights . . . and that will not bring peace."
"If (the government is) interpreting peace as meaning some scrap paper that Hafez Assad has to give us, a peace treaty, and a couple of embassies and for a moment open borders--well, tomorrow he can close the embassies and tear the paper to shreds, as has happened many times among the Arabs themselves.
"There can only be peace if we stay on the Golan," Netanyahu said. "Peace without the Golan will not be peace."
Dovish ministers in the Rabin Cabinet were already moving ahead, however, to advocate a Rabin-Assad summit and, if the terms are right, full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
"I have said many times in the past that if President Assad will be ready to establish full peace with Israel with strict security arrangements on the Golan Heights, Israel should be ready to give up its sovereignty over the Golan Heights," Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the leftist Meretz bloc said after the weekly Cabinet meeting here.
Other, more conservative ministers said the doves were going too far and undermining Israel's negotiating position.
"I think that wisdom obligates silence and restraint," said Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet, considered a hawk among Labor Party ministers. "These kind of expressions create on the other side expectations that we are ready to concede."
Hundreds of Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights clashed with police, burned tires and blocked the main road into the region Sunday to protest any withdrawal. The police and demonstrators exchanged blows when the police tried to push them to the side of a road near the town of Katzrin.