Israel welcomes Syrian leader's gesture of peace: Assad's commitment to talks gives hope, writes Charles Richards

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WHEN Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, entered the sessions earlier this week of the peace talks in Washington, he enthusiastically waved a copy of a newspaper interview President Hafez al-Assad had given. For some time, Professor Rabinovich had been urging Syria to make some public gestures of peace. Now he felt that Mr Assad had done just that.

It is rare for an Arab leader to use the foreign media to make a significant statement of policy shift. But the interview with the British journalist and authority on Syria, Patrick Seale, published in the London magazine Al-Wasat, achieved that. It has created waves in Israel, where it is being seen as a breakthrough.

Mr Seale said he found Mr Assad in rude health, despite speculation it was failing: 'His step was firm, his colour was good, and his eye as sharp and humorous as ever. He spoke with animation and almost without pause for some three and a half hours.'

There were two important revelations Mr Assad made. First, there was his altogether warmer tone towards Israel. 'Accepting the UN resolutions,' he said, 'means that the Arabs have agreed, de facto, that both the Israelis and the Arabs have their place in Palestine.'

He welcomed what he described as the current of opinion within Israel towards making peace. Time and again Mr Assad stressed his commitment to peace. 'There cannot be the slightest doubt that we want peace. We would not otherwise have talked about peace for the past 20 years.'

He emphasised that his aim was full Israeli withdrawal from Syrian territory in exchange for full peace. He said he was still waiting for an Israeli response. When reminded that the Israelis want a peace with Syria which will stand on its own feet, he replied with a guffaw. 'Of course it must stand on its feet. It cannot stand on its head]'

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has said that Mr Assad is a man who keeps his word. In Israel there has been widespread speculation that some separate agreement with Syria might be possible, even if there was no agreement on the thornier Palestinian issue. It was on this crucial area that Mr Assad made his second very important comments. He paid lip service to the long standing Arab demand for a comprehensive settlement. That is the diplomatic formula for no Arab state reaching separate agreements without a settlement of the Palestinian issue, and vice versa.

Mr Assad reiterated that there was formal linkage between the Arab parties to the negotiation. They all co-ordinated their positions in advance of talks. But he also said, in a significant departure from past enunciations of his strategy for peace, that he was ready to allow the Palestinians and individual Arab states to negotiate agreements at their own pace, in their own time. And in an attempt to justify these agreements, he said they 'could no longer be called a separate peace'.