Assad adds his weight to Middle East peace talks

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENTS Hafez al-Assad and Bill Clinton said yesterday after their first summit that they hoped for a breakthrough this year in the search for a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

The Syrian leader used a televised press conference in Geneva to make his most public commitment to the course he undertook two and a half years ago to make peace with Israel. Mr Assad declared: 'I hope that our meeting today will contribute to the realisation of the aspirations of the people in the region . . . that this new year will be the year of achieving the just and comprehensive peace which puts an end to the tragedies of violence and wars endured by them for several decades.'

There was little tangibly new in the men's remarks. Other than vague but firm commitments to broad principles, they gave no indication of the basis for their high hopes. The only specific announcement was confirmation that the heads of the Syrian and Israeli delegations to peace talks would meet in Washington next week after a four-month break.

But the tone of their remarks, and the manner in which they were delivered, served to underscore that Syria was prepared to make peace.

Mr Assad stated that Syria 'sees peace with Israel (no coy reference to the 'Zionist entity') as a strategic choice to secure Arab rights, and which enables all peoples in the region to live in security'.

Mr Assad said that he was a man to be trusted. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has said that Mr Assad drives a very hard bargain, but is a man of his word. 'In honour we fought, in honour we negotiate, in honour we shall make peace,' Mr Assad declared.

For the Syrian leader, the meeting was the main achievement. In a carefully worded opening statement before a rare press conference, he called his talks with Mr Clinton 'important and constructive' and expressed 'deep satisfaction' at what they had achieved.

He secured public US endorsement of the view Syrians have of themselves - Mr Clinton said Syria was a 'key country in the achievement of a comprehensive peace'.

Mr Assad repeated that no peace would last unless it was comprehensive and based on UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425 (relating to Lebanon) and the principle of exchanging land for peace. This was shorthand for saying that the PLO-Israel accord could not survive unless Israel and Syria also made peace, on the basis of international legitimacy and justice. This was formally seconded by Mr Clinton.

Mr Assad then threw the ball into Israel's court: 'If they have the courage to respond to this, a new era of security and stability in all normal, peaceful relations between all shall dawn.'

The crucial word 'normal' - albeit used without spelling out what it means in terms of open borders, exchange of embassies and so on - was interpreted by US officials as greatly encouraging, since this is what the Israelis had been wanting to hear.

Assad woos Clinton, page 11

(Photograph omitted)