Rabin makes strong overtures to Syria on peace

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, appealed yesterday to Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to return to the peace table, and made the strongest overtures yet towards Syria.

Mr Rabin said he hoped to sign a peace treaty with Syria this year, and whilst he did not elaborate whether Israel would be willing to return the Golan Heights, he declared that peace with Syria justified the 'painful decisions' Israel will have to make to obtain it.

'We know that as we engage in serious and authoritative negotiations the point will come where painful decisions will have to be made,' Mr Rabin told a White House press conference. 'The promise of peace and its genuine benefits for all Israelis justifies making such decisions vis-a-vis Syria.'.

Mr Clinton, who met President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in Geneva in January, telephoned him this week to try to persuade him to return to the talks from which he walked out three weeks ago. In an attempt to break the deadlock over resuming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the wake of the Hebron massacre, the US has urged Mr Rabin to agree to put Palestinian police in control of Hebron. Mr Rabin said yesterday that, once an Israeli withdrawal took place, 9,000 Palestinian police would be in charge of security in the West Bank and Gaza.

Of the Palestinians, Mr Rabin said: 'We do not seek to rule them any more.' The US is eager not to see last September's peace agreement between Israel and the PLO disintegrate. Although the breakthrough is attributed to President George Bush, Mr Clinton has presented it as a signal achievement of his administration. Under that agreement, Israeli forces were to have withdrawn from Jericho and Gaza by 13 April. This now seems unlikely after the attack on worshippers in the Hebron mosque on 25 February.

The UN Security Council is to vote tomorrow on a resolution condemning the Hebron massacre. The US had delayed the vote in an attempt to get the PLO to restart negotiations. Mr Rabin said yesterday, however, that 'security is a two-way street' and Israelis also need to be reassured. However, a senior PLO official expressed disappointment over the talks between President Clinton and Mr Rabin, saying he feared Middle East peace talks were deadlocked. 'We are disappointed by Rabin's position,' said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a PLO executive committee member, in Tunis. 'The Israeli government did not respond in any positive way to our demands, and (this) leads us to a kind of a deadlock.'

It is an old strategy of the US and Israel to play the Syrians and Palestinians off against each other. 'We are ready to negotiate peace with Syria,' Mr Rabin said yesterday. 'There must be give and take on both sides.' He declined to deny, as he has done previously, that Israel would 'go down' from the Golan Heights.

Earlier Mr Rabin told a pro-Israel lobbying organisation that the best way to ensure the security of the Palestinians was a full agreement. Officials say he is prepared to speed up the transfer of powers to the PLO in Jericho and Gaza and agree special security measures for Hebron. He added: 'We have no time to waste. It is possible that the window of opportunity is narrower than we thought.'

(Photograph omitted)