Syria sends mixed signals on Jordan pact

CONFLICTING signals emerged yesterday from Damascus over how Syria views the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, to be signed next Wednesday.

While President Hafez al- Assad accused King Hussein of 'blasphemy', he did not rule out a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty as long as it was a better deal than that achieved by Jordan or the Palestinians, and it included Lebanon.

As Jordan and Israel have stepped up the pace in the latest round of Middle East peace diplomacy, all eyes have been on Syria, to see whether President Assad might feel under pressure to follow suit. From what he said in Cairo yesterday, where he was meeting President Hosni Mubarak, the answer would appear at first to be 'no'. He condemned the Jordanian-Israeli deal, because it involved an arrangement whereby Jordan will lease to Israel a small piece of disputed land.

'Our land is ours. We consider it would be blasphemy for any country to speak of renting its land to any other leadership. Anyone who dreams or imagines that Syria would rent its land is shamefully wrong and making a major mistake. If people adopt this theory, it will lead to the opposite of peace and there wouldn't be peace, even if we lived tens of hundreds of years,' he said.

However, President Assad's words were followed by positive actions. He chose yesterday to make a symbolic peace gesture - allowing nearly 300 Syrian Jews to leave Damascus to begin new lives in Israel.

The arrival in Israel yesterday of the leader of the Syrian Jews, Rabbi Avraham Hamra, along with most of his flock, was viewed by the government, as a 'positive' gesture.

So-called 'confidence building measures' would encourage Israelis to support Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's overtures to Syria, the government in Jerusalem believes. Two weeks ago Israel applauded the decision of Farouk al-Shara, the Syrian Foreign Minister, to grant an interview to Israeli television.

In London the Prime Minister, John Major, hailed the Jordanian-Israeli-pact during talks with Mr Rabin, who is visiting Britain. A spokeswoman said the two leaders agreed 'to take a firm line against efforts by President Saddam Hussein to destabilise the region'.

President Clinton will visit US troops in Kuwait and may stop in Syria during a Middle East trip next week to oversee the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian treaty. The White House said last night that he would address the Israeli and Jordanian parliaments.

(Photograph omitted)

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