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Cautious Israelis see signs of hope

THE ISRAELI government was careful last night to play down any expectation of an early peace deal with Syria. But despite the words of caution, government officials did detect a new tone in President Hafez al-Assad's comments, and many leading politicians said the summit in Geneva had broken new ground.

After several conciliatory gestures from Israel in the run- up to the Geneva meeting, Mr Assad appeared to have shown just enough new flexibility for the summit to be declared a success by the peace lobby in Israel. Several Israeli commentators believe the Geneva meeting has taken Israel closer to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for full peace.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, played down the significance of Mr Assad's call for 'normal relations', saying Mr Assad had not outlined what he meant by 'normal' and had produced only 'the minimum required' for the summit to be declared a success. Syria's definition of peace with Israel was still 'foggy', and further clarification was still needed. 'I would not jump to conlcusions' Mr Peres said. Mr Assad had not stated whether he would meet Israel's demands for open borders, full embassies and free trade.

David Levy, a leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, said that yesterday's meeting would produce 'an understanding of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights'. Several Golan settler leaders expressed scepticism about the significance of the meeting, vowing to renew protests.

Whatever cautious noises were uttered last night by the government, for Israel the significance of the Geneva meeting lies in large part in the effect it has on the Israeli public, which still views President Assad as No 1 demon. On television screens last night Israelis saw President Assad publicly rehabilitated by the US and talking of a 'new era of security and stability'.

Nevertheless, Mr Rabin is content to allow talks with Syria develop at a moderate pace. His main attention remains focused on achieving the peace agreement with the Palestinians. With a slim majority in the Israeli parliament, Mr Rabin is unwilling to sell peace on 'two fronts' to his public at the same time.