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U.S. Tries to Keep Kidnaping From Derailing Peace


DAMASCUS, Syria — Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a long day of meetings with top leaders of Israel and Syria, tried Thursday to prevent the kidnaping of an Israeli soldier from demolishing the fragile Middle East peace process.

In late-night comments to reporters after meetings in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad and in Tel Aviv with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Christopher said the talks are "probably the most substantive and serious discussions I've had with both of them since the process began."

Still, the militant Islamic group Hamas threatened to roll back more than a year of progress toward Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by seizing and threatening to kill Nachshon Waxman, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier. The capture of Waxman, who holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship, dominated Christopher's meeting with Rabin, forcing them to truncate other topics.

Rabin broke off talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization over Palestinian self-rule after the kidnaping. But he said Israel will continue its negotiations with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Christopher endorsed Israel's claim that the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, "bear a heavy responsibility" for obtaining Waxman's release, even though he is being held by Hamas, a rival for the allegiance of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Christopher also noted that only Rabin can decide if the crime will be allowed to wreck the peace process.

Christopher accused Hamas of waging "a desperate rear guard action" to stop Palestinian self-government, which would bolster the PLO's claim to represent the Palestinian population.

"Hamas is recognizing the progress that's being made, recognizing the transformation of the landscape, and is taking these actions out of desperation," he said. "Hamas will not be permitted . . . to kill the prospects for peace."

But when a reporter asked if Hamas had not already succeeded in disrupting the peace, Christopher replied: "That will really be up to the (Israeli) prime minister."

He said Rabin can resume the peace talks at any time.

Later, in Damascus, Christopher said he urged Assad to use his influence to obtain Waxman's release. He said terrorism should accelerate, rather than slow, the peace process because "only the enemies of peace benefit from delay."

The kidnaping overshadowed a week of shuttle diplomacy by Christopher focusing on Israel-Syria negotiations. He was uncharacteristically optimistic after a stop in Damascus on Tuesday. But he seemed more reserved after visiting both countries Thursday.

Nevertheless, Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the United States, told Israeli reporters before Thursday's Christopher-Rabin meeting that "there is a new creative Syrian thinking that is designed to advance the negotiations."

Rabin was far more restrained, saying Syria has made some new proposals but most failed to touch on the dispute's core issues. "There are things which may sound more accommodating, but the gaps remain large and it would take a great amount of time and effort on the part of the secretary of state to have those gaps bridged," he said.

On the most promising track of the complex peace process, Rabin said he hopes to be able to sign a formal peace treaty with Jordan this year. Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres made an unannounced trip to Amman on Wednesday to meet King Hussein and other Jordanian officials.

Israeli news reports said the treaty will be signed in mid-November in the United States.

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