Israeli-Syrian Differences Narrow, Christopher Says


After four hours of talks with President Hafez Assad on Friday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced a narrowing of differences between Israel and Syria and an escalation in the pace of Middle East peace talks.

“A new basis for genuine progress” was established, Christopher said at a news conference after the talks. “We have crossed an important threshold in these negotiations.”

A senior U.S. official later called the session “quite remarkable. Assad didn’t say no to anything.”


The U.S. team was particularly pleased with progress in defining the comprehensive nature of a future peace and normalized relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, officials said.

In talks based on the premise that Israel is willing to swap the Golan Heights--captured from Syria in 1967--for peace, Israel has shifted its primary focus from security issues to the goal of full peace with not only Syria but also most of the Arab world. Such an environment makes the retention of an early-warning system on the Golan Heights less important.

“On the whole changed landscape of the Mideast, they now have a common approach,” one U.S. official said. Israel ultimately wants the type of “warm peace” that has blossomed over the past year with Jordan rather than the cold peace it has had with Egypt for 16 years, according to Israeli mediators.

The next step will be two rounds of talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations, expanded to include military experts, on a wide range of specific issues at the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland between Jan. 24 and Jan. 29. Those sessions will be followed by another Christopher shuttle, his 17th, to the Mideast in the first week of February.

Israel had sought the inclusion of the additional experts to deal with sensitive security problems--the issue that led to a deadlock in Syrian-Israeli negotiations last summer.

Because of scheduled elections in the United States and Israel later this year, Washington and Jerusalem had both hoped for accelerated talks. In the past, Assad has repeatedly slowed the pace as a negotiating tactic, but he too appears to recognize the urgency of the effort, U.S. officials said.


“We’ve established a new and effective mechanism” for the U.S.-led effort to end a half-century of war, Christopher said.


The breakthrough was reflected even in the format of talks at the fortress-like People’s Palace overlooking the Syrian capital. Christopher held his first one-on-one session with Assad, and they then met around a conference table with their negotiating teams for open discussions.

Over the past 10 days, Syria has sent a host of positive signals about the revived peace effort.

The Christopher visit was sufficiently successful that the U.S. party canceled a tentative second round of talks in Damascus on Sunday. After briefing Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem today, Christopher will return to Washington on Sunday.