Assad's purloined letter


Washington -- WHAT'S REALLY in that letter from Syria's dictator, Hafez al-Assad, to George Bush?

News accounts say that Syria has unconditionally accepted our proposal to convene a Middle East conference. Only a silent U.N. observer would be permitted, goes the Bush compromise; and if face-to-face negotiations stall, no running to a plenary session of outside powers can happen without both parties' consent.

"Very positive," said President Bush of the letter; "a breakthrough." Secretary Baker called it "a positive response and it is not -- if you read the letter -- it is not conditioned." He repeated "not conditioned."

Maybe we all ought to read that letter. Assad, in return for Saudi billions to buy hundreds of tanks and Scud-Cs, has transformed his image overnight from rejectionist and terrorist to the soul of sweet reason.

However, only a vague summary has been released, lest the world and the Israelis get to look at the fine print.

In that rambling letter, I am informed, Assad spelled out his understanding of assurances given to him over the past six weeks from the United States.

The central assurance, according to the Syrian strongman's letter, is that the U.S. is in complete agreement with the Syrian view that the Golan Heights must be returned to Syria.

Of course, that is not the U.S. position, unless it has been secretly changed. Although we have never recognized Israel's assertion of its law over the strategic high ground (so often used as the launching site of attacks on Israel, and won from Syria after its 1967 aggression), the U.S. has traditionally left the Golan to negotiations between the parties.

But here is Assad, in agreeing to come to a meeting, trying to compromise Bush by laying out his understanding of its U.S.-assured conclusion: return of the land he lost in a war he started.

Nor is that the only trouble in this unreleased "breakthrough." Bush has publicly told Israel, which seeks direct dealings with Arab states, that such talks would not be subverted by outside intervention without Israel's consent.

Direct negotiations would mean nothing if decisions were to be imposed from a higher level.

But Assad's written view of this "consensus" envisions outside powers as active participants in the negotiations -- and he notes U.S. assurances to him on this.

No wonder Baker does not want the text of the fuzzy Assad letter in the newspapers. If the Syrian is lying about what he says the U.S. assures him, that would have to come out; in the unlikely event Assad is truthful, Bush and Baker would have to admit duplicity.

Secretary Baker is apparently uncomfortable about rushing to interpret the Assad understandings of the conference method and outcome as mere "preferences" and not "conditions."

The tip-off was this: After repeatedly hailing the letter as "not conditioned," our diplomat added -- in a line lost in most coverage -- "there are some suggestions made in there that we want to discuss with him to make certain that they are not in any way interpreted as conditions."

In other words, Baker will go to Damascus this week to plead with President Assad to stop writing down his understanding of the deal. If the Syrian stands pat on his letter, the Israelis will naturally want to see the document.

Because undisputed Syrian understanding of a U.S. tilt would send Shamir through the roof of the Knesset, Baker will probably have to put a Bush reply in writing that corrects the record, removing the Syrian not-conditions-but-preferences, and show that to the Israelis instead.

In Israel on Sunday, perhaps Baker will not threaten Soviet Jews with homelessness or demand that Israel in effect turn over the West Bank and Jerusalem's east side to Arabs by forbidding Jews to settle there. Perhaps Shamir will ignore the Assad letter and agree to the face-to-faces meeting.

In that event, Arik Sharon -- who sees this as the slippery slope to the PLO state -- will try to bring down the Likud government. Labor may propose another coalition, but a good chance exists for new elections at year's end. By that time we may all get to read Assad's "breakthrough" letter.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times

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