On eve of Christopher visit, Israeli says U.S. push needed to salvage Syria talks


JERUSALEM -- Peace talks between Israel and Syria are going nowhere, and only a concerted diplomatic effort by the United States might salvage them, a senior Israeli official said yesterday on the eve of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's arrival here.

Mr. Christopher is on his first swing through the Mideast since he accompanied President Clinton to the October signing of Israel's peace treaty with Jordan. He is due to stop in Damascus today before going on to Israel later this evening.

"The pace of the negotiations [with Syria] is very slow, and even if there's occasional progress, such progress won't enable us to achieve peace in the remaining time, which may be several months to a year," Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel radio. "Therefore, a breakthrough, either procedural or substantial, is essential."

Mr. Beilin made his comments after President Clinton phoned Syrian President Hafez el Assad and reported to Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that nothing new had emerged from what was described as a lengthy conversation.

For weeks, Israeli officials have been expressing frustration over Syria's refusal to enter into high-level negotiations. The Syrians broke off direct talks in February after a Jewish settler opened fire on Muslim worshipers in a West Bank mosque. Since then, the Syrians have relied on U.S. mediation through Mr. Christopher.

Israeli newspapers reported yesterday that there is a dispute within Israeli intelligence circles over whether Syria remains committed to making peace with Israel. The dispute is said to be so fierce that it is holding up the delivery of the 1995 intelligence review to the government.

After three years of on-again, off-again negotiations, Israel and Syria remain far apart on what they are prepared to offer. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has publicly committed Israel to the return of an unspecified part of the strategic Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty and full normalization of relations with Syria.

Mr. Assad, however, is demanding a commitment to a full withdrawal from the heights before entering into high-level negotiations on the terms of peace. He also wants the withdrawal to be completed within a year, with Jewish settlements -- with about 12,000 Israelis -- dismantled.

Mr. Rabin and other senior officials warn that the territorial

concessions the government will have to make in exchange for peace will become politically impossible in another year, by which time Israel's next parliamentary campaign will have begun.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Israel yesterday for a two-day visit.

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