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Israel Turns Peace Hopes to Syria : Mideast: Officials are optimistic that treaty with Jordan will spur talks. Americans' visit next week could be pivotal.


JERUSALEM — With peace agreements with the Palestinians and now Jordan, Israel is about to focus on Syria, its most implacable foe among the Arabs, in pursuit of a full settlement of the Middle East conflict.

"I want peace with Syria," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres declared Tuesday. "I think we need to reach a comprehensive peace."

Israel hopes that the treaty to be signed with Jordan next week will not only encourage Syria to accelerate negotiations, but that it will suggest solutions--such as Syria's lease back to Israel of territory it now occupies in the Golan Heights--for the difficult problems the two countries face.

There was a strong element of warning, however, in comments from Israeli officials and analysts, asserting that Syrian President Hafez Assad should move swiftly and decisively to ensure he is not left out in the peacemaking.

"Jordan and the Palestinians are the inner core of peace with the Arabs, and Syria could find itself marginalized, isolated and even left completely behind as we move forward," said David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Syrians have the opportunity of finishing a good peace with (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin, and they need to know that this opportunity may not be there forever."

Syria would now become the target, other analysts said, of "a push-pull strategy" intended to bring it into serious bargaining with Israel.

"Will he get the best deal by being last?" Joseph Alpher, director of the Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said of Assad. "No, and we have to tell him so. Assad won't want to be seen as a follower, certainly not of Jordan and the Palestinians, but he doesn't want to miss the boat, either."

Like the basic agreement a year ago with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian self-government, the treaty that Rabin concluded with King Hussein of Jordan this week has injected tremendous energy into the Middle East peace process.

"The deal with the PLO sparked King Hussein to act lest he foreclose opportunities and lose his natural advantage in the region, and the same is now true of Assad," Alpher added, stressing the speculative nature of his comments. "But I'm far from certain that Assad will respond in the same way. I don't understand what he gains for Syria from remaining out of play."

Israeli officials are hoping that U.S. leverage will come into play in a major way next week and force a Syrian response.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is due to visit Jerusalem and Damascus early in the week in advance of President Clinton's trip to the Middle East, and to offer Assad the prestige of a presidential visit--the first to Syria in more than 20 years--if he breaks the stalemate in negotiations with Israel.

Despite three years of U.S. mediation, those negotiations remain stalled on a series of major issues: the extent and timing of Israeli withdrawal in the Golan Heights, security guarantees such as demilitarization, local intelligence systems and international peacekeepers and the character of Syrian-Israeli relations in the future.

"Assad has long wanted the U.S. President personally to serve as the mediator with Rabin, but to get that he will now have to put up," a ranking Israeli diplomat said.

Assad, however, gave no indication Tuesday of any softening of his demand for a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as basis for peace--and for his insistence on an Israeli commitment to pull out as the basis for treaty negotiations.

The Syrian president dismissed as "apostasy," much like a person forsaking his religion, the idea of a nation leasing its own land to a neighbor--a crucial element of the Jordanian-Israeli settlement that will allow Israeli farmers to continue cultivating territory under Jordanian sovereignty.

"Anyone who dreams or imagines that Syria would rent its land is shamefully wrong and making a major mistake," Assad said after a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "If people adopt this theory, it will lead to the opposite of peace."

Assad also criticized Hussein for making a separate peace with Israel, but pledged that Syria would do nothing to upset the treaty. "We can put up obstacles, and everybody knows that," Assad said. "But this will only hurt us as Arabs."

In Amman, Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali defended Jordan's decision to make peace with Israel, saying it could not wait for other Arab states. "Unfortunately, Arab coordination proved futile," he said, "and it was rather useless to wait for others."

Asked about rumors of secret Syrian negotiations with Israel, Assad said in Cairo that no agreements had been reached in any forum. "We are still at the stage of feeling each other's pulses," he said.

But Yossi Olmert, a leading Israeli analyst and former government spokesman, argued strongly that most of the basic negotiations had already been conducted.

"Rabin has to gauge Israeli political opinion, to decide whether to proceed with a referendum on the Golan Heights or go to early elections or a referendum or whatever," Olmert said, "and from that will flow the compromises that will be made on the Golan Heights. The decision lies with Rabin, not Assad."

Olmert and other Israeli analysts read the treaty with Jordan as diminishing Syria's room for maneuver, applying pressure for it to come to terms with the Jewish state after nearly 50 years of hostility, but also clearing the way for an agreement once Assad feels he has a deal.

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