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Assad Insists Syria Is Committed to Peace With Israel : Mideast: Arab leader, Clinton say their talks produced progress but give no details. President later tells Israeli Knesset, 'I believe something is changing' in Damascus.


DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Hafez Assad, angrily rejecting suggestions that he should visit Jerusalem or make some other dramatic gesture to prove his commitment to peace, said Thursday after hosting a crucial meeting with President Clinton that if the Israelis will not believe his word, the peace process will collapse.

"There is nothing we have that proves our design for peace, except our saying that we want peace," Assad told a rare news conference. "And anyone who does not believe what we are saying, he would have no other way for peace. It would be he that does not want peace."

Assad's outburst, with President Clinton at his side, came just moments after the Syrian president asserted that he was ready to negotiate a peace that would enable "Arabs and Israelis to live in security, stability and peace."

Clinton and Assad both said their three-hour meeting at Assad's grandiose palace overlooking Damascus produced some progress in bridging the differences between Syria and Israel in the painfully slow negotiations--conducted through U.S. mediators--aimed at ending almost half a century of animosity between the two neighbors.

"We achieved a few things and we didn't achieve others," Assad said, speaking through a Syrian government interpreter.

Clinton said, "There was some progress made, the details of which I will not and I should not discuss at this time."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters that progress had been made in several areas in dispute, including security arrangements. But he refused to elaborate.

Later in Jerusalem, Clinton was challenged in a news conference to cite anything that Assad had said that was new. "I think his statement did break some new ground," Clinton replied, again without elaborating.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who shared the Jerusalem news conference, said Clinton reported progress but no breakthrough. "We are advancing in tiny steps, inch by inch," Rabin said.

Clinton's hope to keep the focus on the modest but real progress in the negotiations was dashed when an Israeli journalist, traveling with White House reporters, asked Assad if he could assure the Israeli public that its security will not be damaged if Israel relinquishes the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

"The majority of the Israeli public, according to the polls, does not believe it is physically safe to give up the Golan Heights," the Israeli reporter said. "This mistrust has been added to by the fact that you haven't visited Israel; you haven't met with Mr. Rabin, there's no direct talks; you haven't spelled out the exact terms of peace."

Assad's face darkened.

"The concern of any country in the world about its security does not justify that particular country to (hold) the lands of other states," he said in reference to the Golan Heights, which Syria claims as its sovereign territory despite almost three decades of Israeli occupation. "To be secure and not to have any concern from anything--this was never there in reality or in books."

He rejected "attempts to confine the peace process to small things, to formal things concerning the visit of one party to the other."

Still, Assad's opening statement--agreed to in advance by U.S. officials--broke some new ground, at least on a symbolic level. Assad, who in the past was reluctant even to say the word Israel , called his adversary by its name with seeming ease.

Assad also defined, for the first time, his minimum requirements for a peace treaty--Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and from southern Lebanon. In the past, Assad had implied that he would not sign a treaty with Israel until all Arab-Israeli disputes have been settled, including such hotly controversial issues as the future of Jerusalem.

Assad said Syria is ready "to commit itself to the objective requirements of peace through the establishment of peaceful, normal relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan . . . and from the south of Lebanon."

Clinton said that Assad's word "should be reassuring to the people of Israel and should encourage more dialogue and a greater willingness to pursue the peace process."

Later, the President took the same message directly to the Israeli Parliament. In a speech to the Knesset, Clinton said: "I believe something is changing in Syria. Leaders understand it is time to make peace. There still will be some hard bargaining, but they are serious about proceeding to bring peace with security. . . . We will walk with you on the road to Damascus."

Clinton was the first U.S. President to visit Damascus in 20 years, and Assad tried to make the most of it. Ever since Clinton's visit was announced last week, Syrian authorities have been spreading paint and planting trees to spruce up the appearance of the capital. A few ramshackle homes on the route from the airport to town were torn down to eliminate an eyesore.

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