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Assad sends peace signals to Israelis

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IN A GOOD omen for a revival of Middle East peace negotiations, the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has said that Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister-elect, is a strong, honest man who wants peace.

President Assad, in an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, spoke surprisingly warmly about the newly elected Israeli leader. He said: "He seems to be a strong and honest man. As the election results show, he evidently has wide support. It is clear he wants to achieve peace with Syria. He is moving forward at a well-studied pace."

Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, and the departure of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. Israel, in return, wants a peace treaty with Damascus and security guarantees safeguarding its northern border with Lebanon.

President Assad, moving beyond traditional Syrian caution about political change in Israel, said: "Yes, there is a definite change. I believe there is a real desire for peace." He said that it had been impossible to do business with Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing Israeli prime minister.

Mr Barak, in return made complimentary remarks about Mr Assad, saying, in a interview that was also published in yesterday's al-Hayat: "His legacy is a strong, independent, self-confident Syria, which, I believe, is very important for the stability of the Middle East."

As soon as he has formed a government, Mr Barak is to see President Bill Clinton in Washington to discuss peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

President Assad says it is not a question of starting negotiations afresh but resuming them where they were left off when Mr Netanyahu took power in 1996. He added: "Now the situation is completely different. There has been a move to the centre, and there is a leader who, I feel sure, can accomplish whatever he decides to do."

Differences remain about where the negotiations had got to, particularly over where exactly in the Golan Israel should withdraw to. Syria wants Israel to pull back to the 1967 frontier, which would give Damascus slightly more territory than a withdrawal to the 1948 border.

There will be demilitarisation on both sides of the new line and a system of monitoring to prevent surprise attacks.

Mr Barak pledged before the election to get Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon within a year of taking office. The Israeli military occupies a so-called security zone in Lebanon, but continues to suffer casualties from attacks by Hizbollah and other Lebanese-based guerrilla groups.

Support in Israel for holding on to the Golan Heights, where there are 17,000 Israeli settlers, ebbed during the last election. The Third Way party, whose main platform was keeping the Golan, lost all of its seats in the Knesset. Mr Barak has also promised to hold a referendum on a military withdrawal from the Golan.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is worried that Mr Barak will give priority to peace with Syria over an agreement with the Palestinians.

President Assad has boycotted Mr Arafat for 17 years and recently rejected an Egyptian proposal to take part in a five-power summit of all Israel's Arab neighbours to coordinate negotiations.