Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Monday will make his first trip to Washington since assuming the reins of government here, seeking to reinforce Israel's strategic relationship with the United States and ways to restart U.S.-mediated peace talks with Syria.
Peres will meet with President Clinton to try to forge the kind of personal relationship the U.S. president had with slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres will also speak before a joint session of Congress, lobby Capitol Hill to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and work on Israel's ties with the U.S. Jewish community.
But his main emphasis will be Syria.
After face-to-face consultations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein this week, the Israeli prime minister will present Clinton with his ideas for breaking the six-month deadlock with Syria, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
One proposal reportedly on Peres' list is a three-way summit with Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Peres will also suggest stepping up the pace of negotiations and urge the linking of a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement to full diplomatic relations with other Arab countries, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.
U.S. and Israeli officials say they believe that Peres and Assad are serious about another attempt at making peace.
Talks between Israel and Syria broke off in the summer over what security arrangements would be put in place on the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal. Israel, then represented by Rabin, wanted to retain ground-based early warning stations on the Golan even after giving back territory captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
Assad refused and said he wanted Israel to agree to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights before he would resume negotiations. Rabin responded that that was tantamount to asking for the whole pie before entering into negotiations for any piece of it.
Many political observers said a politically weak Rabin had given up on securing any agreement with Syria before Israeli elections next October. Assad seemed to believe that Rabin was trying to neutralize him by pretending to negotiate, while advancing with Jordan and the Palestinians.
Peres, on the other hand, believes that he can take a peace agreement with Syria to Israeli voters next year, Israeli officials said, and Assad also apparently believes that Peres is more sincere in his desire to reach an agreement.
Political analysts say that opinion polls taken after the Nov. 4 assassination of Rabin favoring Peres over opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have persuaded Assad that the Labor Party will remain in power for four more years and can carry out an agreement.
"There is a moment, ironically and tragically produced by the death of Rabin," said a U.S. diplomat close to the negotiations. "Both sides have been reminded of the opportunity to achieve complete peace--and of the risk, if the moment is not seized."
Peres' concern with security arrangements reportedly does not differ greatly from Rabin's, given the strategic value of the high Golan plateau overlooking Israel. Peres insists that he has not given up on ground stations, despite press reports that he might be willing to consider options.
An Israeli official following the Syrian issue said, "I am not sure we can drop ground warning systems until someone offers us an alternative."
But Peres is also more focused on other issues involved in a comprehensive peace agreement, such as full diplomatic and trade relations.
While Rabin demanded a resumption of high-level talks between military officials and the resolution of security issues before all others, Peres is willing to talk simultaneously about water rights in the pond-rich Golan, Syrian support for Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and other aspects of normal relations, such as embassies and tourism across the common border.
"Rabin believed the road to peace came through security. Peres believes the road to security comes through peace," government spokesman Uri Dromi said. "Peres says that we can talk on a variety of issues and what we don't agree on put aside for later. That worked with the Palestinians, it worked with Jordan. Why can't it work with Syria?"
This week, Peres expressed cautious optimism about a possible peace with Syria. After a shuttle mission between Damascus and Jerusalem by U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, and a meeting with Mubarak, Peres said he believed that Israel and Syria could "bridge the gaps" in their positions.
"We are opening another chapter with the Syrians," Peres said at a Cairo news conference.
After Peres visits Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher is expected to make his own shuttle trip between Syria and Israel after the scheduled signing of a Bosnian peace agreement in Paris.