Israel-Syria talks stall, postponing bilateral accord Arafat, Israelis face opposition in their own camps

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Israel and Syria abruptly halted movement toward a breakthrough in their peace talks yesterday, postponing until later this year the chance of a comprehensive framework to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The setback followed signs from Israel that it was not ready to move swiftly on a second negotiating front at a time when domestic public opinion hadn't fully adjusted to last week's landmark accord with the Palestinians.


Serious progress on the most strategically important set of Middle East negotiations now is not expected until a trip by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to the region, perhaps next month.

Meanwhile, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, having pulled the majority of Arab states behind his peace accord with Israel, faced continued trouble within his own organization in meeting Israel's terms for mutual recognition.


The delay in formally cementing a new Israeli-PLO relationship has U.S. officials worried that it could weaken the foundation of the deal already reached on Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho and interim Palestinian self-government.

Israel wants the PLO to renounce armed struggle against the Jewish state, a position that has been at the core of its ideology for more than two decades.

Although Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said mutual recognition could come in 48 hours, Mr. Arafat, at a joint news conference, said of the timing: "It is still under discussion."

He spoke before traveling to Oman, the Persian Gulf state least hostile to Mr. Arafat for having sided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the gulf war.

Other Persian Gulf states endorsed the Israeli-PLO deal over the weekend, indicating that they will support it financially regardless of their attitude toward Mr. Arafat.

PLO officials have urged Israel to accept their argument that offending parts of its charter are null and void, saying that formal abrogation by the PLO's parliament-in-exile would take weeks.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Army Radio that "the gaps are not large" between Israel and the PLO on mutual recognition, which is expected to be announced in statements from Tunis, Tunisia, and Jerusalem.

Uncertainty over when mutual recognition would occur cast doubt on tentative plans by the Clinton administration to be host to a White House signing ceremony on Monday, the last convenient time both for President Clinton and the Israelis before the start of the Jewish high holy days.


But yesterday's stalled talks between Israel and Syria all but ruled out a "Super Monday" ceremony marking breakthroughs on all fronts between Israel and its neighbors.

On Thursday, Syria's chief negotiator, Muwafak Allaf, had expressed the hope that Syria and Israel would be able to reach agreement on a joint statement of principles by the end of this round of the Middle East peace talks.

But Israeli officials, speaking privately late last week and over the weekend in Jerusalem, cautioned that it was premature to talk about an Israeli-Syrian breakthrough.

Emerging from yesterday's session, Mr. Allaf said, "Unfortunately, there is no progress whatsoever," and he blamed the Israelis for having "blocked any progress until now."

The two sides had reached a point at which they were dealing with the fundamental issues of what kind of peace Syria was prepared to offer and the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Israeli negotiator Itamar Rabinovitch said the problem was the same that negotiators had previously encountered: Syria's demand for a withdrawal pledge from Israel.


"The holdup is that they insist on hearing an Israeli commitment to what they have in mind while remaining vague on what are our main concerns."

While the PLO agreement is still not final, Israel appears reluctant to propel forward a deal with a second enemy that could require a pledge to withdraw from occupied territory.

Some analysts argue that Syria's negotiating position will only weaken over time and that delay benefits Israel.

William Quandt, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin may not have decided ++ how quickly to move on the Syrian track.

"As a politician, Rabin has got to decide whether to do it all at once and overwhelm his [domestic] adversaries or let everyone digest the first step and then go to the second."

Mr. Rabinovitch shed some light on the Israeli dilemma, saying before yesterday's session: "I think that the moves in the Israeli domestic arena with regard to the Palestinian agreement are not over yet. . . . The nationalist and right-wing groups in Israel are trying to mobilize a very large demonstration today. And in that respect, the domestic repercussions of the agreement are not over yet.


"For that matter, the agreement itself is not a fait accompli yet, and I think, therefore, it's premature to speculate on what repercussions it could have for the Israeli public's and political system's response to an agreement with Syria."