Asserting that the next six months are "a crucial period" for Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State Warren Christopher headed for the region Wednesday to prod Israel and Syria to quicken the glacial cadence of their negotiations.
"I think it is essential for the parties to accelerate the pace if they are to achieve significant progress before the elections have an overhang on it," Christopher said in reference to general elections scheduled in both Israel and the United States next year.
"We all sense the need to make progress in the summer and fall," he said.
Israeli officials have said it will be difficult for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to engage in substantive negotiations with Syria once the election campaign begins in earnest, probably around the first of the year.
The concessions needed to seal a deal would be political liabilities for Rabin in the midst of an election contest, but a peace agreement before the campaign begins could be a political asset, these officials say.
Talking to reporters aboard his jet between Washington and a refueling stop in Shannon, the usually cautious Christopher exhibited an uncharacteristic optimism.
He said Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad "are both in a problem-solving mode. . . . They are looking for ways to meet the security needs of both countries and still come to an agreement with each other."
Israel and Syria have agreed to talks between high-ranking military officers--probably their respective army chiefs of staff--in Washington later this month. It will be the first military-to-military contact between the two countries since similar talks broke off in December.
Christopher said he does not anticipate a breakthrough as a result of this trip but hopes to be able to smooth the way for the crucial military negotiations.
Although the focus of Christopher's trip, scheduled to last five days, is on the Israel-Syria negotiations, he also plans to confer with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. His first scheduled stop is Jerusalem.
Christopher said he hopes to arrange a U.S.-Egypt-Israel meeting in Cairo that would bring Rabin and Mubarak together to warm the current chill in their countries' relations 20 years after Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.
Unlike predecessor Anwar Sadat, Mubarak has never visited Israel. Egypt also has been sharply critical of Israel's suspected nuclear weapons program. In Israel, the opposition Likud Party has cited the friction in the Egypt-Israel relationship in its argument against the Rabin government's effort to make peace with Syria.
A senior U.S. official said that if Mubarak and Rabin reach a public rapprochement, it could boost Rabin's stock with the Israeli public and give him more room to maneuver in his negotiations with Syria.