Israel and Syria move closer to peace deal

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Senior military officers from Israel and Syria are shortly expected to take part in informal talks on security issues in Washington in a sign that the two foes are making steady, if quiet, progress towards a draft agreement.

The Syrian government is understood to have agreed to the meetings after representations by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who recently visited Damascus and Jerusalem to give new impetus to the peace negotiations.

Formal talks between the Israelis and Syrians in Washington were broken off last year after the massacre of Palestinians by a Jewish gunman at a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron. But diplomats say contacts between the respective heads of delegationhave been continuing behind the scenes.

Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ehud Barak, yesterday confirmed that Israel and Syria have already reached a tacit understanding, through American mediation, to restrain their forces during clashes in Lebanon.

General Barak said there had been mutual agreement that civilian areas in Lebanon and northern Israel would not be shelled. But he warned that this would not prevent Israeli forces going wherever necessary to confront units of Hizbollah, the fundamentalist group that operates from areas of Lebanon under Syrian control.

Whatever the interpretation, the discreet agreement to show restraint in Lebanon is being seen by some diplomats as a model for an eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied Golan Heights and the creation of a demilitarised zone.

MrChristopher failed to make a breakthrough during his last visit to the region because Syria and Israel remain far apart on how far Israeli troops would withdraw on the Golan, how quickly they would do so and what degree of diplomatic recognition would be accorded to Israel at each stage.

But the opening of talks between senior officers is seen as a signal that both sides remain serious about their intention to reach a deal.

The Israeli-Syrian negotiations are proceeding amid contradictory public signals from each side. This week, for example, the state-controlled Syrian press shrilly accused Israel of "killing the chances for peace". But President Hafez al-Assad, who dicta t es the pace of Syrian diplomacy, told a group of foreign visitors in warm terms that his government remained committed to the process.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, yesterday accused Syria of acquiring from North Korea Scud-C missiles with a range of 330 miles. Mr Rabin said the North Korean regime had agreed with both Syria and Iran to supply the weapons and was also helping to construct launching systems.

If true, the Scud deal would underline the race against time in the peace negotiations. Many Middle Eastern diplomats believe Israeli and American elections due in 1996 make it imperative to reach agreements within the next year. The twin risks of weapons proliferation and political upheavals are making Western governments worried about the slow pace of the Israeli-Syrian deal.