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Christopher Lauds Overture by Syria : Mideast: Secretary of state kicks off his mediation mission by praising Damascus official's 'symbolic' interview on Israeli TV.


JERUSALEM — The atmosphere for peace talks between Israel and Syria has never been more favorable than it is now as a result of recent attempts by Damascus to appeal to Israeli public opinion, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Sunday.

Starting a weeklong mediation mission that will take him to Jerusalem and Damascus twice, Christopher cited a long and often contentious interview that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh gave to Israel's state-owned television as a demonstration of Syria's new attitude.

Christopher said Shareh's "willingness to have an interview with an Israeli journalist is an important step toward reconciliation" even though the Syrian foreign minister's words echoed Damascus' traditional hard-line position.

"The interview was very significant in symbolic terms," Christopher said. "I would urge that attention be paid to that rather than just to the substance of it."

Christopher noted that, during the Madrid conference that launched the current round of Mideast peace negotiations in 1991, Shareh refused to permit Israeli reporters to attend what had been billed as an open news conference, speaking only when all Israelis had been escorted from the room.

The Israeli Cabinet discussed the Shareh interview in generally favorable terms during its weekly meeting Sunday.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said it was a "positive step" for Shareh to talk directly to the Israeli public, but he denounced the substance of the foreign minister's remarks, especially a claim that Syrian troops never shelled Israeli civilian targets during the wars between the two nations.

Rabin, Israel's army chief of staff during the 1967 Middle East War, said the Syrians repeatedly shelled Israeli communities from positions in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured during that conflict.

The Golan is the central issue in the Israel-Syria negotiations. Syria demands the return of all of the captured territory as a condition for peace. Israel has said it will consider a partial withdrawal but insists that Syria must first indicate whether it is ready to exchange ambassadors, open the border and take other steps in exchange.

Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said the interview was an important gesture, but added: "I don't think the government is about to offer a deal of the Golan Heights in exchange" for a television program.

Christopher urged Israelis to view the Syrian gesture in the context of other recent signs of an Arab-Israeli warming.

In a little more than a year, Israel has reached preliminary peace agreements with the Palestinians and Jordan, and has opened diplomatic contacts with Morocco and Syria. In addition, the oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have agreed to stop enforcing the Arab boycott of companies that do business with Israel.

Christopher meets today with Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and other Israeli officials. He is scheduled to go to Damascus on Tuesday to report the Israeli views to Syrian President Hafez Assad and to obtain the Syrian reply.

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