Israel extends olive branch to Syria

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, seeking to break the prolonged stalemate in peace negotiations with Syria, put forward a plan yesterday for an immediate but limited Israeli pullback on the Golan Heights to test prospects for peace with Syria.

Mr. Rabin said Israel would then want a three-year period to develop diplomatic relations and other ties before proceeding with a more substantial but phased withdrawal from the region.


Although Syria has rejected with disdain all Israeli offers of a phased or partial withdrawal during nearly three years of talks, officials here stressed that the new proposal was an opening position and would improve significantly in the give and take of negotiations.

Immigration Minister Yair Tsaban of the leftist Meretz Party described Mr. Rabin's offer as the most far-reaching that Israel has made.


"We are on the very verge of actual negotiations," said Housing Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a retired general and Rabin confidant, after a special Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv.

"We are just waiting for [Secretary of State Warren M.] Christopher to come to the region, and determining the positions of both sides so that actual negotiations will begin."

Discussions with Syria are scheduled to resume in a week, when Mr. Christopher arrives for what Israelis hope will be an intensive shuttle between the capital cities of Jerusalem and Damascus.

A treaty with Syria is considered the final and essential element of Israel's search for peace with its Arab neighbors.

Farouk Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister, said in a Dutch television interview rebroadcast in Israel yesterday evening that his country still wants a full withdrawal, in return for which it is ready for "a full and warm peace . . . even this year."

But he criticized the Rabin proposal.

"He [Rabin] spoke about the withdrawal within three years. . . . But we think, from a realistic point of view, from a logistical point of view and because of the small size of the Golan Heights, [that] there is no need for a long period to conclude the withdrawal," Mr. Sharaa said.

Mr. Rabin emphasized the shallowness of the initial pullback, perhaps without the removal of any of the Israeli settlements there, the "testing period of three years" and then a phased withdrawal to borders still to be negotiated.


But Israeli officials, commenting on the flexibility of the new proposal, suggested that all elements -- the extent of withdrawal, the timetable, the security guarantees, the criteria for "full normalization" of relations -- were negotiable.

"In any case, it's a sign that the Israeli government is sending messages, and I think a very pragmatic approach, to the Syrian side," Mr. Tsaban said. "And we are now [awaiting] what will be the response of the Syrian side."

Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the Likud bloc, convened a meeting of opposition parties and forced the Knesset's recall from its summer recess to debate the issue next week.

"We want peace with Syria, but peace with the Golan Heights, not peace without it," Mr. Netanyahu said.

"What has kept the peace between us and Syria in the Golan Heights over past years is that we are holding Damascus with an iron clamp: The cannon and tanks of Israeli forces are within spitting distance of Damascus," he said. "This is what keeps the peace, and the citizens of Israel do not want to abandon it."