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Syrians, Israelis to Resume Talks : Mideast: Secluded, nonstop sessions in Washington area to begin next week, Christopher says in announcing breakthrough. U.S. will now broker peace process.


JERUSALEM — Intensive Syrian-Israeli peace talks will resume Dec. 27 at a closed venue in the Washington area, Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced here Saturday, amid growing optimism that the toughest phase of the Middle East peace process may be on a fast track to resolution.

Taking a page from the success of U.S.-orchestrated Bosnia peace talks, Syrian and Israeli delegations will meet for secluded, nonstop sessions over at least two three-day periods in the next few weeks to work on the issues that have blocked peace in the past.

Christopher will then resume stepped-up shuttle diplomacy on Jan. 10. Concluding a comprehensive Middle East peace will be his top priority in the new year, a senior U.S. official said.

"Clearly, with new and intensive talks we are entering a new phase of negotiations," Christopher said at a joint news conference after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. A day earlier, he had traveled to Damascus to confer with Syria's president, Hafez Assad.

"This reflects the very clear desire I have heard from both President Assad and Prime Minister Peres to pick up the pace and make progress as rapidly as possible," Christopher said.

Israeli officials did urge caution because the gaps to be bridged by the talks are significant. The breakthrough this weekend has centered on process rather than substance.

"It's very optimistic and the mood is good but . . . no side has yet given in on any major issue. There is a will from both sides and there is a will from America to intensify its involvement, but we still have a long way to go before signing a peace treaty," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said. "It is going to happen, but I still can't be sure if it will happen before the October 1996 [Israeli] elections."

Still, Christopher's 15th Middle East shuttle has been marked by an almost buoyant mood, with some U.S. officials even speculating about reaching a deal within four or five months.

When the U.S. team suggested the format for negotiations, Assad "immediately" signed on, an indication of the shifting mood, a senior U.S. official said Saturday.


Peres was also upbeat.

"It's a new game. It's a new time. It's a new beginning," he said. Pressed to comment on the timing of an accord, he said: "As fast as we can."

The shift in atmospherics stems from the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last month by a Jewish extremist, a tragedy that has united forces working for peace.

"The issues have not changed, but the attitude has. Before the two sides were not convinced the other really wanted peace. Now they do," the Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.

He attributed the change to the impact of the assassination on Syrians as well as Israelis, and Peres' different approach to mediation.

Assad was reportedly shaken by the internal divisions in Israel, especially with an election looming next year, and the price the Israeli leadership has had to pay to make peace with Arabs.

On the Israeli side, Peres indicated publicly after his two-day visit to Washington last week that he is prepared to return the strategic Golan Heights--an implicit part of meeting Syria's terms.

Peres also said last week that making peace with Syria is more important than winning the election. Both statements were welcomed in Damascus.

Next week's U.S.-brokered talks will encourage American participants to propose compromises, which may be more palatable to the two parties as they try to settle the last major Arab-Israeli conflict.

Peres has also focused on a comprehensive peace that would allow Syria to bring in any remaining major Middle East players, a stark contrast with the approach of Rabin, a former general who was preoccupied with security issues.

Christopher publicly credited Peres' role.

"Years ago he understood the need for a strong Israel and helped to rebuild it. Today, he understands the historic chance for peace and is ready to grasp it," he said.


The schedule announced by Christopher calls for talks Dec. 27-29 in an as-yet undecided, private location. U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, special Middle East envoy, will preside over the talks. The delegations will be made up of foreign ministry officials and the ambassadors to the United States from both countries.

Israel's delegation will be led by Uriel Savir, director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Syria has not disclosed who will head its mission.

The talks will then recess for a week to allow the delegations to consult with their leaders. They will resume for the second round of three-day talks in the first week of January.

Unlike the effort in Dayton, Ohio, however, the delegations will be opening, rather than closing, mediation efforts.

The pattern of sequestered round-the-clock mediation was adopted because it has proven increasingly successful with hostile parties, beginning with the 13-day Camp David accords in 1978 involving Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and President Jimmy Carter.

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