Clinton in final push for peace in Middle East

President Bill Clinton is to make a final attempt to turn his forays into the Middle East peace process into success by meeting the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, this week in the hope of kick-starting Syria's stalled talks with Israel.

The US president announced the breakthrough during a trip to Bangladesh yesterday, saying the meeting would be in Geneva on Sunday, after his swing through South Asia. Although Mr Clinton cautioned against raised expectations, the meeting is significant.

Mr Assad was aloof throughout the first round of US-mediated Syria-Israel negotiations, which fell apart in January after the Israelis refused to make an upfront commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights in accordance with UN Resolution 242, ending a 33-year occupation. Now, it seems, Mr Assad is ready to get involved face-to-face.

That alone will prompt speculation, particularly that Mr Assad, 69, has decided to put his house in order in readiness for his son while still capable of doing so. Israel Radio, quoting a "high-level European figure" who recently met Mr Assad, said his health was deteriorating and he had difficulty walking and completing sentences.

While these claims remain unconfirmed, it is true Mr Assad has been conducting a shake-up domestically: yesterday a new government was sworn in, under Mohammed Mustafa Miro, a former provincial governor. Farouq al-Sharaa, the Foreign Minister and Damascus's pointman in the last Israel-Syria talks, kept his job.

For weeks the US has been trying behind the scenes to get the Israel-Syria talks going again, partly because Mr Clinton hopes to end his presidency on a high note. It also reflects concerns - felt in Washington and Damascus, but also inside the Israeli security apparatus - that the region could erupt into violence if Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, goes ahead with his threat to withdraw troops unilaterally from Israel's occupation zone in south Lebanon by July without an accord with Syria.

Israel reacted cautiously to Mr Clinton's confirmation of the meeting. Mr Barak's office issued a woolly statement saying Israel hopes the meeting will lead to the resumption of talks, which "will only happen if the conditions are ripe". Syria earlier repeated a familiar accusation that Israel is not truly serious about making peace.

There are many hurdles. Mr Assad will be well aware that Mr Barak is not in a strong political position domestically, and may not be able to deliver on whatever promises he makes should talks resume.

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