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Syria, Israel Said to be Near Agreement to Reopen Talks on Golan Heights

March 14, 1995

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Secretary of State Warren Christopher today held back-to-back talks with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad, hoping to announce direct negotiations between the two countries and a narrowing of differences over the Golan Heights.

First, in Jerusalem, over breakfast at Rabin’s home, Christopher reviewed with the Israeli leader Syria’s latest stand on the kind of security measures that would be installed if Israel withdrew from the strategic border territory.

Then, Christopher flew here and met with Assad for two hours. Reporters were told to expect an announcement, but then told any statement had been delayed. ``We may have jumped the gun a little bit,″ said a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified.

Christopher, meanwhile, spoke by telephone from his hotel room with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa and then went to the foreign ministry to see him.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said earlier that Assad was inclined to reopen the negotiations with Israel that Syria broke off three months ago.

But in Jerusalem, Rabin told a parliament committee today there had been ``almost no change″ in Israel’s position regarding an agreement with Syria, and the key building blocks for peace were still missing.

The Israel-Syria talks broke down in December with Israeli and Syrian military chiefs negotiating security arrangements for the Golan Heights in the expectation Rabin would agree to at least a partial pullback.

There were numerous reports in the Israeli media that new talks between the two countries at the ambassador and chief of staff level are likely as a result of the latest Christopher shuttle.

In Jerusalem, Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria said U.S.-directed talks with Damascus were ``much more serious and cover a larger area″ than previously. Itamar Rabinovich, who is also Israel’s ambassador to Washington, spoke to reporters after Christopher’s meeting with Rabin.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin told army radio that once serious negotiations were resumed, an agreement could be reached within months.

``Both sides know more or less what the settlement is .. if they want peace with us, I don’t think we need a lot of time to reach agreements,″ Beilin said.

The secretary of state spent five hours with Assad on Monday discussing security arrangements for the Golan Heights if Israel does surrender territory.

Possible measures include demilitarized zones, limitations on Israeli and Syrian troop deployments in other zones and listening posts and an early warning system to signal a surprise attack.

The Clinton administration already has said any settlement should be based on land for peace _ Israel giving up territory in exchange for Arab recognition.

Israel took that approach in concluding peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan last year.

When Israeli and Syrian diplomats last talked face to face in Washington the military chiefs of staff participated. In Damascus on Monday, Christopher sent his military aide, Gen. Daniel W. Christman, to the Golan Heights from Damascus for an assessment of the security situation.

U.S. military attaches at the American Embassy in Syria have made a dozen trips there, but Christman was the highest ranking officer to go there.

Israel seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War after years of constant shelling of Israeli villages from the commanding plateau. There is strong sentiment among the Israeli public not to relinquish the territory.

Reopening talks between Israel and Syria would crown an eight-day trip that has clearly tired the 69-year-old Christopher. Speculation in Washington that he would resign was dismissed as unfounded.

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