Israeli Arabs ready to step into Assad's den

IN what the Israeli government sees as a 'positive' step forward in the peace process, Syria is reported to have agreed to a visit by a delegation of Israeli Arabs, including members of parliament. If the trip goes ahead as planned, it will be the first official Israeli visit to Syria of any description.

On the broad scale of international diplomacy, the development may seem slight. The Israeli Arabs say their sole intention is to convey condolences to Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian President, on the death of his son, Basil.

However, in the context of the continuing hostile relations between Israel and Syria, any gesture of warmth from either side is viewed as significant. At first President Assad refused to countenance the visit. Yesterday, however, Mohammed Bassiouny, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, said Damascus had agreed.

Assuming there are no last- minute hitches, the Israeli Arabs, led by Abdel Wahab Darawshe, an Israeli Arab Knesset member, will make this historic crossing over the Israeli-Syrian lines on the Golan Heights on foot, passing through the United Nations- patrolled buffer zone.

The proposed trip has the full support of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, who appears suddenly to have discovered that Israeli Arab members of parliament can have their uses. One fifth of Israel's population are Israeli Arabs, and two Israeli Arab political parties, with five members of parliament, back Mr Rabin's coalition. Mr Rabin always insists that he does not want to be dependent on support from Israeli Arabs. If the delegation brings back friendly messages from Mr Assad, he may change his mind.

Mr Assad's decision to accept the delegation was described by one Western diplomat yesterday as 'a good CBM' - acronym for 'confidence-building measure'. Diplomats caution, however, that Syria's mood at the moment is particularly hard to read, and that this sudden signal of warmth is not in tune with other noises from Damascus indicating new anger towards Israel since the Geneva US- Syrian summit last month.

At first, the meeting between President Clinton and Mr Assad was hailed as a landmark for Israeli-Syrian peace efforts, as Mr Clinton praised Mr Assad's seriousness. However, new Washington talks have since got nowhere.

The government-controlled Syrian press has recently been plastered with 'anti-Israeli vitriol', say Western diplomats. Mr Assad was apparently angered by the cool Israeli response to the Geneva meeting, and by Mr Rabin's announcement that he would hold a referendum before any deal over the Golan Heights.

For their part, the Israelis were angered 10 days ago by the deaths of four Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled 'security zone' of South Lebanon at the hands of Hizbollah, the Islamic militant group, which receives support from Syria. A Katyusha rocket attack across Israel's northern border into western Galilee has also put Israel on edge.

The rocket was apparently fired by a marginal Palestinian group, unconnected with Syria, but suspicion remains that conflict could once again flare up in the north between Syrian-controlled gunmen and Israeli forces.