Israel's peace envoy seeks new start with Syria

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL'S chief negotiator with Syria called yesterday for President Hafez al-Assad to take further confidence-building measures to help achieve a settlement with Israel, suggesting the Syrian leader might go on television to speak in Arabic about peace with the Jewish state.

Itamar Rabinovich, who epitomises Israel's charm offensive towards Syria since Labour's election victory this summer, predicted that a settlement with Syria might be reached within 'six months to a year'. He said that the bilateral talks with Syria had hit a 'hard rock' when the Syrians insisted on full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights before going further. Israel was now demanding clarification from Syria on what it meant by 'peace'.

'Assad has considerable flexibility at home. If Assad could take Syria to war against Iraq together with Saudi Arabia and the United States, Assad has considerable flexibility,' said Mr Rabinovich, a leading scholar on Syria who was appointed to take over the talks in August. Asked what Mr Assad could do to persuade public opinion on both sides that he was serious about peace, Mr Rabinovich said: 'Take the Syrian media, for example. Let him speak in Arabic on television about peace. He added: 'Assad has been adjusting his people to peace very slowly. We're all for subtlety, but not in this case.'

Mr Rabinovich said he was careful not to push Mr Assad too hard in any respect, including the Israeli desire for a summit between Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Mr Assad: 'We think it would be better to begin with a summit meeting. Assad doesn't have to come to Jerusalem, and Rabin doesn't have to go to Damascus; it could be held elsewhere. But if Syria is not interested, we will not insist.' The same approach, devoid of the fist- thumping favoured by the old Likud guard, applied to Syria's refusal to consider an interim settlement: 'Syria is totally opposed to it right now . . . Since they are, we are not pushing.'

The approach is characteristic of the Tel Aviv University rector who has devoted much of his career to studying the many lost opportunities in Arab-Isreali relations since the foundation of the Jewish state. Last year he published The Road Not Taken, focusing particularly on the negotiations in 1949-52 - the period during which the Arab-Israeli conflict, as the world has known it for four decades, began to take shape.

Since his appointment Mr Rabinovich - aptly described as a 'donnish charmer' - has made a tangible mark. In addition to the official negotiating language of English, he uses fluent Arabic and French ('particularly for the older generation' of Syrians) to explain nuances. Upon taking the job he quickly created a stir by declaring that all components of UN Resolution 242 - which involves territorial concessions - were 'applicable' to the talks. Israel has long described retaining the Golan as indispensable to its security.

Israel's tactic in negotiations with its Arab foes has long been recognised as a hard-man, soft- man approach - that whatever the conciliatory statements made by some representatives of the government, the policy pursued remains unalterably hard-line. Under Likud, many envoys saw the agreements they had reached abroad subsequently torn up at home. Regarded as more doveish than his prime minister, Mr Rabinovich emphasised yesterday that 'it is the government which makes the decisions. I now see, and work closely with Rabin.'

AMMAN - George Habash, the radical Palestinian leader, yesterday dismissed as 'superficial' Israel's concessions in letting Palestinians from the diaspora join the peace process, and said that armed struggle against the Jewish state must continue, Reuter reports. He said his new opposition alliance of 10 Palestinian groups would continue to pressurise the PLO to withdraw from the talks.