A bumpy ride to Israeli Syrian talks


AS THE aircraft carrying the US Secretary of State, Mr Warren Christopher, crossed the Atlantic yesterday, the automatic pilot failed, and the aircraft was buffeted from side to side.

But then Mr Christopher, making his 16th shuttle mission to the Middle East, is used to getting a bumpy ride when Israeli Syrian peace negotiations are on his agenda.

This time, however, Mr Christopher, who met Israeli leaders in Jerusalem later in the day and is due to fly to Damascus tomorrow, is hoping for a relatively smooth trip. The US has hosted a series of Israeli Syrian peace talks this month, and the signs are that the two sides are more serious than ever about moving towards a treaty.

Mr Christopher's goal on this visit is to persuade President Hafez al Assad to upgrade the level of negotiations, from ambassadors to foreign ministers.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, is due in Washington from January 20th, when the next session of talks is likely to convene; the question now is whether Mr Assad will agree to send along his Foreign Minister, Mr Farouq a Sharaa.

Mr Christopher said yesterday that the talks had now reached "a critical point". Indeed, Israel has indicated a readiness to trade the entire Golan Heights for a treaty, and Syria has signalled that it is prepared to normalise its relations with Israel.

The framework for a peace accord does, therefore, seem to be within reach; hence the need for upgraded negotiations, and for Mr Christopher's plea to the sides "to move forward at an intensified pace".

The Syrian press lately has been unusually effusive in its praise for the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Shimon Peres, and his peacemaking intent, and Damascus has indicated that it is willing to sanction ongoing, uninterrupted negotiations towards a treaty. That marks recognition that time may be running out; Mr Peres must go to the polls by October at the latest.

Mr Peres said yesterday he was "doing his utmost" to bring a proposal for peace with Syria before the Israeli public this year. Ever the optimist, the Prime Minister added that he hoped for comprehensive Middle East peace by the end of the century. Mr Christopher would happily settle for that.

. Israel yesterday began releasing 1,200 Palestinian prisoners, in advance of next week's Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That will leave some 2,800 Palestinians still in Israeli jails.