A senior Israeli official warned Monday that time is fast running out to conclude a peace treaty with Syria--and that with it will go the possibility of a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict.
Increasing Israeli pressure on Syria before Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in the region Wednesday, Yossi Beilin, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said this summer will be the effective deadline in negotiations with Damascus 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 here, Beilin suggested that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin soon 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 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 Damascus is 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.
But 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.
More than just peace with Syria is now at stake, Beilin said. "Without peace with Syria, there is no comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and comprehensive peace is very important to stabilize other peace agreements," he continued. "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."
On Monday, Syria rejected Israel's latest proposal--a limited pullback on the Golan Heights to test the two countries' ability to normalize relations.
The government-run newspaper Tishrin said Rabin's offer, made Sunday, showed that Israel is not serious about making peace with Syria or reaching a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East.
"Israeli rulers know very well that peace with Syria is impossible without complete withdrawal from the Golan and that comprehensive peace in the region cannot be achieved unless the Arabs regain control of all their occupied territories," Tishrin said.
Rabin had said in a radio interview that Israel wants to make only "a very small withdrawal" at the beginning of an accord as a 2 1/2-to-three-year test of Syria's acceptance of peace and willingness to normalize relations. He said there had been a similar test period when Israel returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt under a 1979 peace treaty.
At their annual briefing to Rabin's Cabinet on Sunday, Israeli intelligence chiefs warned that Assad is afraid of losing face in the Arab world by ceding territory and that he will not be rushed into a peace deal.
Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, chief of military intelligence, predicted that Syria will not show any new flexibility and will continue to demand a complete withdrawal, Israel's Itim news agency reported.
If no treaty is signed before the end of the year, Saguy said, he sees little possibility of a peace agreement before Israel holds elections. On the other hand, Saguy said, he sees little chance for renewed warfare with Syria, which has strictly observed the cease-fire agreed to after its war with Israel in 1973.
In Washington, a senior Clinton Administration official said Christopher hopes that his trip will revive the Israel-Syria talks. But the official disagreed that the United States feels progress must be made by next summer.
Regarding Beilin's remarks, the official said: "He's in a better position (than U.S. officials) to judge the Israeli political reality. We have never sought to put a timetable on when you need to achieve progress."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.