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>PD OCTOBER 28, 1994 V2, #198

Clinton Begins Visit to Israel

President Bill Clinton arrived in Israel Thursday afternoon after holding talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus earlier in the day.

Upon arriving in Israel, Clinton said Israel "stands on the threshold of a new era of peace and security," adding that he hopes to meet as many Israelis as possible during his visit.

Five thousand police officers have been deployed in Jerusalem for Clinton's visit, including 500 around the King David Hotel where the President is staying.

Clinton, who is the third U.S. president to visit Israel, did not visit Jerusalem's Old City as previously scheduled. The decision was taken after a dispute arose in which the Palestinians took issue with Israel's demand that Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert accompany Clinton on his visit to the Old City.

Clinton and Assad Renew January Acquaintance

By Ron Pemstein (Jerusalem)

President Clinton has met Syrian and Israeli leaders on his Mideast tour and says advances have been made on substantive issues blocking an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. The United States says it will remain the principal mediator between two neighbors that cannot speak directly to each other.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria mediated by the United States have been moving in the right direction lately but not very quickly. If the talks continue on the current pace, US officials feared a peace treaty could not be agreed on before one or two years.

Thanks to Clinton's four hour stop in Damascus, a senior US official says advances on substantive issues have been made that might reduce this schedule to within the next four to six months. Clinton says he cannot go into details about where the advances were made without undermining his ability to be helpful as a mediator. Clinton did tell the Israeli Knesset he believes President Assad is serious.

"We have been urging President Assad to speak to you in a language of peace that you can understand. Today, he began to do so. Of course, it will take more than words, much more than words. Yet I believe something is changing in Syria. Its leaders understand that it is time to make peace. There will still be a good deal of hard bargaining before a breakthrough. But they are serious about proceeding."
However, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters substantial progress has been on more than one of the key issues blocking the agreement, again without giving details. However, it is known Assad went farther than ever before in describing what type of peace he foresees with Israel in the event of Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.

That's an important issue for Israel that sees the Golan Heights as vital to its security and does not want to commit to a full withdrawal without a better picture of what Syria means by peace.

If there was progress on substance in Damascus, US officials say there were backward steps on what they call public diplomacy, the confidence building between people. Take terrorism. In private, US officials maintain, Assad condemned attacks on innocent civilians citing the bus bombing in Tel Aviv last week and the shooting of Muslim worshipers by a Jewish extremist last February.

However, when it came time to face reporters, Assad said terrorism was not discussed as a separate agenda item and insisted Syria has never committed a terrorist act. Clinton did not let Assad's comment pass without correction. "We cannot and we will not support the killing of innocent civilians. And President Assad has said repeatedly and said to me in our meeting today that he thought that was wrong as well wherever it occurred whether in the bus incident or in Hebron so we did discuss it in that context."

US officials say Syria remains on the State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism for the original reason -- it continues to offer safe haven to terrorist groups operating in Lebanon.

Another issue that relates to trust between Israel and Syria is direct negotiations. Israel wants them, Syria does not, preferring to deal with Israel through the United States. The Syrians say direct negotiations should wait until the positions are closer together. The United States does not plan to challenge that position yet.

Assad also sharply rejected suggestions that he visit Israel to try to bridge the differences saying he believes the United States is best placed to push the process forward. At the same time, US officials point out Assad selected another authority to testify about his seriousness in the search peace--Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Assad: Israelis Should Not Doubt My Word

By Laurie Kassman (Damascus)

Clinton wants to see the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations speeded up. He says some progress was made in his talks with President Hafez al-Assad but he wants to see more. "I do know we have made some progress here and I expect to make some progress in Israel. I believe, and I have told all the parties in the Middle East this, that we should build on what has happened and try to accelerate this peace process, not slow it down."

For his part, the Syrian president repeated his readiness for normal relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.

Clinton said the statement goes beyond past remarks and should reassure Israel.

When asked why Israel should trust him. President Assad said Israel should not doubt his word. He spoke through an interpreter. "There's nothing we have that proves our desire for peace except our saying that we want peace. And anyone who does not believe what we are saying, he would have no other way for peace. It would be him who doesn't want peace."

The question was asked by a Jerusalem-based reporter, an unusual occurrence here in a country still formally in a state of war with Israel. The news conference was broadcast live both in Syria and in Israel.

Assad dismissed a reporter's question about US accusations of Syrian sponsorship of terrorism. He challenged the accusers to provide proof. "Does anyone of you have anything that proves that Syria has done a single terrorist act?"

The US State Department has listed Syria as a terrorist-sponsoring nation since 1979. But, Clinton said the Syrian leader had condemned recent terrorist acts in Israel and agrees that violence must not be allowed to undermine the peace process.

Syrian Man-on-the-Street Will Accept Israeli Peace

By Laurie Kassman (Damascus)

A day after Jordan and Israel signed their historic peace treaty ending nearly half a century of conflict and hostility, President Bill Clinton traveled to Syria to nudge President Hafez al-Assad in the same direction as his neighbor. The visit has raised Syrian expectations peace is within its reach, too.

With renewed hopes Syrian-Israeli negotiations will move forward, Syrians say they are ready for peace -- but not for friendship with the country that has been their arch-enemy for decades.

Damascus University Professor Suheil Zakkar says real peace in the region will come when Israel stops thinking of itself as a European ghetto in the Middle East and becomes an integral part of the region.

But the 60-year-old history teacher says friendship with Israel won't happen in his lifetime. "I personally would find it too difficult to make normal relationship with any Israelis or I would find it impossible. I can get rid of my shirt but I cannot get rid of my skin. Really. I am going to accept peace but I will not deal with any Israelis."

Eighteen-year-old medical student Rada feels the same way. "I bear many grudges to the israelis. Maybe there will be peace but to shake hands with the Israelis never."

In contrast, enterprising businessmen are anxiously waiting to profit from a peacetime market and even envision doing business with Israel.

Syria is holding out for the complete withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights and from southern Lebanon. For Syrians and Lebanese, the return of their land is the key to peace.

Twenty-five-year-old Mahmoud comes from the village of Shebaa in southern Lebanon. He and his family were forced to leave, after Israeli troops took control of the area as a self-declared security zone. "My dream in this moment and from many years ago is to be back in my country, my home, my land." (Arabic)

Yousef Jajati is a leader of Syria's dwindling Jewish community, which numbers less than 300. He wants peace to bring Syrian Jews home again. And, he also dreams of the day he can pray in Jerusalem and return home to Syria without a problem.

Rabin on the Golan

(By permission of Middle East Digest)

"Words are not enough about the Golan Heights. We must put those words into action...Withdrawal from the Golan Heights is unthinkable, even in times of peace. Anyone considering withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be abandoning Israel's security. Let us invest, all of us together, in order to fulfill our obligations to the Golan Heights. And you, the residents--those of you who made the Golan Heights what it is--have all my respect." Yitzhak Rabin, June 10, 1992

"The Golan is last on my list of priorities." Yitzhak Rabin, September 12, 1994

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