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Israel, Syria Move Towards Reviving Stalled Peace Talks

By Caryle Murphy
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

Apparently aiming to revive their stalled peace talks, Israel and Syria have made gestures signaling flexibility in their positions in recent days and reportedly have exchanged private messages through their ambassadors in Washington.

Israeli officials have hailed a more "positive atmosphere" between the two countries and suggested that a breakthrough that would permit the beginning of substantive negotiations - which they predict will be long and difficult - may be in the making. But details of what lies behind the warming tone remain unknown.

"There is something in the air," government spokesman Uri Dromi said. "There's no real negotiating yet. We are exchanging ideas. The atmosphere is warming up."

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is playing his cards close to the vest. "He said, I don't want to go into details,' " said Burg, who was among Labor Party members who met Monday with Rabin on the Syrian issue.

At the same time, these developments set off protests from Israeli settlers on the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned by Israel as part of any peace agreement, and also sparked a brief revolt within Rabin's ruling Labor Party.

Rabin started the round of public signals last week when he said Israel would like to see a three-year "testing period" of normal relations with Syria after an initial and "very slight" Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981.

Although Syria had already received this idea privately from Israel, Rabin apparently wanted to show his seriousness by making it public. The three-year period was a small retreat from Israel's original desire for a five-year "testing period" before making a fuller withdrawal.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, on a visit last week to Europe, reciprocated. For the first time, he answered questions from Israeli journalists at a press conference, spoke of an eventual "warm peace" with Israel and said a future meeting between Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad is "inevitable."

On Saturday, Assad addressed his parliament and said, "Syria realizes the importance of a peace which ensures full (Israeli) withdrawal" from the Golan Heights. He added that Syria "also realizes that peace has objective requirements and will meet the objective requirements that are agreed on."