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Hope Fades for Breakthrough In Israel-Syriua Peace Talks

By Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times

After two months of intensive diplomacy, U.S. hopes of a dramatic breakthrough in the last and most complex phase of the Mideast peace process appear to be fast fading.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on a three-day tour of the region, originally had hoped to establish a framework for peace between Israel and Syria by spring. But talks in rural Maryland between the region's two most formidable foes have moved so slowly that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres now appears almost certain to call early elections in May rather than wait until October, according to Israeli sources.

Peres' move may be driven by growing support in the polls. But relinquishing the strategic Golan Heights to Syria -- a key issue in the negotiations -- is not popular with many Israelis.

The likelihood of early elections is almost certain to limit the scope for compromise.

"Israel is still just as interested in the peace process. But Peres can't give the impression that Israel is prepared to give in on anything," said Ehud Sprinzak, a Hebrew University political science professor.

"For elections, he has to look tough."

Nonetheless, U.S. officials insist that the electoral process will not affect the peace effort.

"Clearly, much work remains to be done," Christopher said in a joint news conference after talks with Peres. "[But] we can continue peace negotiations under any scenario here."

And Peres said the Israeli-Syrian talks, launched at the end of last year, have resulted in "some understandings" and that the negotiations will not be hurt by whatever course his government takes.

But the hyperbole that surrounded Christopher's last two shuttles to the region, in both December and January, has disappeared. And both U.S. and Israeli officials now admit that the original schedule already faces serious setbacks and that no major real progress is likely until after Israel elects a new government.

The new deadline has effectively become November -- before the U.S. elections. Christopher, who made Mideast mediation his top foreign policy goal for 1996, hopes that securing the final phase of peace will be his diplomatic legacy.

"We would like to get an agreement this year, and this is still a realistic possibility," a senior U.S. official said.

Christopher still has a chance of pulling something off during his Mideast tour. He arrived in Jerusalem on Monday and will fly to Damascus, the Syrian capital, Tuesday for talks with President Hafez Assad and then return to Israel on Wednesday. But pessimism is pervasive in both Israel and Syria.

"We still have no signs that the Syrians are willing to compromise on a few issues that are critical to us. And if they don't show any compromise, there won't be any peace," Minister Without Portfolio Yossi Beilin told Israel Radio.

In Damascus, the state-controlled Tishrin newspaper complained Monday of the "pessimistic climate created by Israeli officials in the wake of stumbled Maryland talks" that have frustrated Christopher's endeavors.

The talks at eastern Maryland's Wye Plantation, which center on Israel's returning of the Golan Heights -- captured in the 1967 Middle East War in exchange for peace from Syria -- resumed amid high expectations in late 1995 after two earlier stalemates in the five-year effort.

Following the Nov. 4 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres offered a new approach to peace that focused less on security differences and more on a "comprehensive" peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, led by Syria.