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Peres Reaches High in Latest Bid for Regional Peace

December 17, 1995|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres got some--but not all--of what he wanted from Syrian President Hafez Assad on Saturday night with the announcement that peace negotiations between the longtime foes will be renewed near Washington next week.

Peres had reached high in his first diplomatic initiative since succeeding slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last month. During a trip to Washington last week, Peres told President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he believed the stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations could best be restarted by moving them to a higher political level and broadening their content.

Christopher traveled to Damascus on Friday carrying that idea as one of several proposals from Peres on how to get the talks moving.

Ever cautious, Assad said yes to broadening the content but vetoed conducting the talks at the level of foreign minister or higher.

Once again, Assad responded to Peres' reluctance to publicly, unequivocally commit to a full withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights by keeping the talks at a lower level, where important concessions cannot be made.

Neither did Assad give any indication that there is any change in Syria's basic position: that Israel must abandon all of the Golan Heights, occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, within a year in return for a peace treaty with Damascus.

The Israelis have indicated a willingness to withdraw to the international boundary--a smaller pullout than what Syria is seeking--and have sought a three-year period to do so.

But there are two reasons to believe that the upcoming round of talks may prove more fruitful than previous military negotiations and talks between the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors to the United States.

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The first is that these talks are supposed to embrace a wide range of issues, not just security concerns. The second is that the United States now has license from Peres to act as an active broker and not just a message carrier.

In both instances, Peres has broken dramatically with the rules Rabin laid down in negotiating with Syria.

It was Rabin who insisted that the Syrians make good on a commitment to renew military talks they broke off in June, something Damascus refused to do after Israel insisted on leaving early warning ground stations behind after any retreat from the Golan. And it was Rabin who kept Christopher confined to the frustrating role of messenger in his many previous shuttle missions to the region.

Confident that Clinton is unlikely to pressure Israel into making any concessions during 1996, an election year in Israel and the United States, Peres has given the administration a chance to come up with its own proposals to bridge the two sides.

Such a role has produced results in the past.

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In peace talks between Israel and the Egyptians and between Israel and the Palestinians, each party proved more willing to accept proposals coming from the United States than from each other.

Peres appeared happy and relaxed Saturday night as he stood beside Christopher at a post-Sabbath press conference. But he is likely to face a storm of criticism from the political opposition this week and stiff protests from Golan Heights settlers.

He will have to respond to accusations that he is selling the Golan wholesale to Assad in return for little more than a promise to negotiate more intensely.

In an interview published in the Hebrew daily Maariv on Friday, Peres was asked whether he had any doubt that Israel would have to fully withdraw from the Golan to achieve the sort of regional peace settlement he says he is driving toward.

"I have no doubt," Peres replied. "Because I think that without that there will never be peace."

Peres said the precedent was set by Menachem Begin, the late prime minister from the right-wing Likud Party, when he returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for the 1979 peace treaty that was Israel's first with an Arab nation.

"Look what Begin paid. And he was supposed to have been the toughest," Peres said.

Unlike Begin, Peres has never enjoyed a reputation as a tough negotiator.

On the contrary, many Israelis are suspicious of his willingness to compromise with enemies of the Jewish state. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis oppose relinquishing the entire Golan, home to about 16,000 Jewish settlers and a plateau overlooking Israel's northern Galilee region.

In the wake of Rabin's Nov. 4 assassination, Peres is riding on a wave of public support for him and for the government's peacemaking efforts in general.

Rabin was shot dead by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Israeli who said he was trying to stop the prime minister from ceding parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

In public appearances since the assassination, Peres has repeatedly insisted that Rabin was killed "because he was right, not because he was wrong."

The 72-year-old Peres, architect of Israel's decision to negotiate directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization, has said he intends to make an all-out effort to conclude a peace treaty with Syria and with what he calls "all the non-crazy" Arab states before Israeli parliamentary elections in October--even if his efforts bring him down politically.

Making peace with Syria, Peres has said, will mean an end to the state of war in the Middle East.

"I would never be able to forgive myself for as long as I live had I allowed this opportunity to slip just because it may have enabled me to remain in power," Peres said in the Maariv interview.

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