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Syria Softening Opposition to Israel, U.S. Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that could mean a major shift toward moderation by Israel’s most radical Arab neighbor, Syrian President Hafez Assad has told Secretary of State James A. Baker III that he is “committed to a genuine peace” with the Jewish state, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The signal from Assad, which officials said was presented explicitly as a change in Syrian policy, came on Baker’s final stop on a Middle East tour that won agreement from both Arabs and Israelis to the broad lines of a new U.S. peace initiative.

“I think that all countries involved on all sides really want to try and seize this opportunity, if possible, to make progress,” Baker told reporters.

“The United States . . . is going to be very vigorous in attempting to use whatever influence and good offices it might have to pursue a comprehensive settlement,” he said.

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With the Middle East behind him, Baker arrived in Moscow from Damascus on Thursday afternoon for meetings with Soviet leaders. But his Mideast preoccupation continues. And his tour, which he began with a characteristic caution that he was unsure of getting much support for an American initiative, has instead turned into the formal kickoff of a major new diplomatic effort by the United States.

It is likely to be a long, slow effort, Baker said. “You’ve got to take it a step at a time,” he said. “You have to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you run--and we’ve been at it for maybe five or six days. . . . Maybe the wheels will come off tomorrow, but let’s give it a chance.”

Senior officials were likewise cautious about the meaning of the Syrian statement on peace with Israel, which came during a marathon, seven-hour meeting between Assad and Baker in Damascus on Wednesday night.

“I don’t want to read too much into it,” said one official, noting that it is not yet clear how sincere the Syrian move toward peace will prove to be.

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They noted that Baker and Assad disagreed sharply on some issues--including terrorism--and that Baker sought no agreements on specific steps that Syria might take toward reconciliation with Israel.

In the past, Syria has said it was willing to make peace with Israel--but only in the sense of ending the state of war between the two countries.

That meant no diplomatic or economic relations between Syria and Israel, “just the absence of war--nonbelligerency,” the senior official said.

And, in exchange, Assad demanded that Israel withdraw completely from the Arab-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

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Israel and the United States have insisted that any peace negotiations should aim for “genuine peace,” by which they mean full, normal political and economic relations--in part because such ties would make the two nations less likely to go back to war.

“Now, what they’re saying to us is ‘genuine peace,’ ” the official said. “I can’t tell you that that means everything that we mean by it, but it sounded different from anything they’ve said before.”

Baker himself, in a briefing for reporters, refused to divulge any details of his talks with Assad--and admitted to some doubt about the commitment of both sides to serious peace negotiations.

“I think that the government of Israel is strongly interested in moving rapidly and actively toward peace--I certainly hope that’s the case,” he said with emphasis. “I hope that’s the case with the Arab parties to the conflict.”

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The outlines of Baker’s peace plan--which Baker and other officials resolutely refuse to call a “plan"--remain murky. As an initial step, Baker visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and Syria to ask Arab and Israeli leaders to consider a long list of steps they could take to reduce their level of hostility.

Some of the steps proposed were reportedly major, such as a freeze on Israeli settlements on occupied Arab land or a Syrian move to recognize the Jewish state.

But many more were relatively minor actions that Baker hopes could serve as “confidence-building measures” to break the ice between countries and peoples that have been at war for more than 40 years.

Among those, officials indicated, were actions by Israel to ease the lot of Palestinians living under military occupation, such as an end to curfews and a relaxation of travel restrictions. Others were gestures the Arabs could make. Syria, for example, could release its remaining Israeli prisoners of war and return the remains of Israeli airmen who have crashed on Syrian territory, one official suggested.

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In the next step of the still ill-defined process, aides said, Baker and other Administration officials will try to identify several steps that the Arabs and Israelis could take simultaneously--and then will go out and try to persuade them to take them.

“As always, the proof is going to be in the pudding,” a senior official said. “How does one move from a general concept and general principles to a process that is practical?”

The basic idea, officials said, is to arrange talks on two tracks: one between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the other between Israel and the Palestinians. But what the tracks themselves would look like, and how they would be started, has not been worked out.

Officials have said, however, that one approach would be to begin with talks on “practical problems"--water rights between Israel and the Arab states, for example, or occupation regulations between Israel and the Palestinians.

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One problem Baker faces is that although Israel and the Arab side have welcomed his efforts, each has urged him to concentrate on the part it likes best.

Israeli officials were enthusiastic, for example, about Baker’s ideas for normalizing relations with their Arab neighbors but glum about any suggestion that they cede land or significant self-government to the Palestinians. Arab leaders praised Baker and President Bush for basing the plan, in part, on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to withdraw from occupied territory--but they publicly ignored the idea of normal relations.

“We constructed a process that was designed to give each side something that was important to them, but also to make clear that if they wanted to see progress that they also had to be giving something that was important to the other side,” a senior official said. “They accepted that concept in principle. . . . Will it be sufficient? I don’t know.”

An Israeli official compared the exercise to a contest in which the first side to say “no” to anything will lose by alienating the Bush Administration. In the wake of the allied victory in the Persian Gulf War, and the newly enlarged U.S. military presence in the area that resulted, no one wants to do that.

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“The United States sees its role as a catalyst,” Baker said. “We believe there is some enhanced (U.S.) credibility here as a consequence of what happened in the Gulf. We say that with a total absence of arrogance.”

Syria, which joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq despite a decade of hostile relations, seemed to agree.

“We are optimistic that this opportunity will be utilized in the proper manner,” Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh said. “We don’t want to see the first post-Gulf-crisis era be the same as the era in the past.”

At a news conference, Shareh even made a point of defending Baker’s sincerity in seeking an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories to a skeptical Syrian reporter--a courtesy that left at least one U.S. official astonished.

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In the U.S.-Syrian talks, Assad repeated his pledge to seek the release of the six American hostages believed held in Lebanon.


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