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Israel Steps Up Syrian Pressure in Advance of Christopher Visit

By Michael Parks
Los Angeles Times

A senior Israeli official warned on Monday that time is fast running out to conclude a peace treaty with Syria - and with it will go the possibility of a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict.

Increasing Israeli pressure on Syria before U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in the region Wednesday, Yossi Beilin, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said this summer would be the effective deadline in negotiations with Syria because Israel's elections next year "will make bold decisions very difficult."

In acknowledging that Israel's withdrawal from most, if not all, of the Golan Heights would be highly unpopular, Beilin suggested that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would be unable to make concessions necessary for a treaty for fear of losing parliamentary elections, due in November 1996.

Recent opinion polls show Rabin facing a tough personal challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the rightist Likud Party. Netanyahu opposes the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

"We are approaching the moment of truth with Syria," Beilin said. "For more than two years, it was possible to say we had enough time for the issues on the agenda. The approaching election year, both in the United States and in Israel, will make it very difficult to make bold decisions."

A leading dove within Rabin's coalition government, Beilin said that, because of the long stalemate in the talks, he had begun to doubt what Israeli analysts have believed was Syrian President Hafez Assad's "strategic decision" to make peace with the Jewish state.

Not only had Israel offered a number of concessions, he said, but President Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had both tried to mediate - all without even the resumption of formal negotiations, which Syria broke off a year ago.

Beilin challenged Assad to prove his sincerity by telling Christopher that he was ready to open "high-level negotiations" on the substance of the peace treaty. "If the American leadership is able to open this channel at a high level, we won't need more than a few months to cut a deal," Beilin said, terming the Christopher visit "very, very important" in this respect.

Beilin acknowledged that Israel and Syria made progress in discussing security arrangements that would follow Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights; this occurred in discussions between the two countries' ambassadors in Washington with military chiefs of staff even taking part in one session.

When the formal talks in Washington broke off a year ago, Israel and Syria were still discussing the preamble to a negotiating agenda. Syria has demanded that Israel pledge a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights; Israel wants Syria to agree to normal relations before discussing a phased and partial withdrawal.

"Without peace with Syria, there is no comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and comprehensive peace is very important to stabilize other peace agreements," Beilin said. "If negotiations with the Syrians collapse, it doesn't mean we won't proceed with the Palestinians and Jordan. But only when we have peace with Syria will we have a comprehensive peace, one that ends the Arab-Israeli conflict."