Assad knows time is running out, Christopher says

JERUSALEM — Syrian President Hafez Assad realizes that a deal should be made with the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before next year's elections, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is to visit the region next week, indicated Sunday.

In an interview with Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, Christopher made it clear that next year's Israeli and U.S. elections mean that the deadline for a peace accord between Israel and Syria should be Thanksgiving, in late November. He said an Israel-Syrian deal should be culminated by a Rabin-Assad summit.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office admit that the idea of dismantling one Jewish settlement in the first phase of Golan withdrawal, which Rabin floated over the weekend, had been discussed with U.S. officials.

At the same time, they strongly deny that Israel has presented the idea in talks with Syria, but the United States may have forwarded the idea to Damascus as part of its mediation efforts. Apparently, Syria has insisted that Israel cede more than just Druse villages in the first phase of withdrawal.

Christopher's remarks seemed to refute Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara's statements that Damascus could obtain the same terms for Golan withdrawal from the Likud after the 1996 elections.

"My impression," Christopher said, "is that President Assad understands that his best opportunity for an agreement is to do a deal with Rabin. The public statements of Likud leaders hostile to a deal on the Golan would certainly suggest that conclusion to Assad."

While Assad knows that time is running out for a deal, Christopher reasoned, he will never display this keen interest since it could undercut his bargaining stance. "You will never see a quality of desperation from Assad. He is too meticulous and controlled for that," Christopher said.

Israel's Channel 1 reported Sunday night that an unnamed Israeli businessman held an unspecified number of meetings with a nephew of Assad in different European capitals. It said the meetings were taking place with the direct authorization of Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and with Rabin's knowledge.

According to the report, the nephew is the son of Assad's brother Rifat, and a meeting was held at the home of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas's daughter in Paris last January.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said they have no knowledge of such alleged meetings. Beilin was not available for comment.

There is speculation that the interlocutor may have been Nimrod Novik, a former adviser to Peres turned businessman.

Meanwhile, Rabin softened his stand Monday on a Golan pullout, telling the Labor Party Caucus that any withdrawal from the Golan would first be put to the people in a national referendum, a pledge he has made in the past.

President Ezer Weizman met with Golan residents over the weekend to listen to them vent their anxieties over Israel's possible withdrawal.

Some 11,000 Israelis now live on the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967.

At Kibbutz El-Rom, located near the Syrian border, residents described feeling tense and resentful that "we have to hear about these things in the media, and not directly from the government," as one resident told Israel Radio.

After their talks with Weizman, members of the Golan Resident's Council said they felt reassured that there was someone listening to them in the president's residence.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered the resident's council to stop giving money to a public campaign aimed at getting Israelis to oppose a return of the Golan to Syria.

The temporary restraining order was handed down at the request of the Peace Now movement, which objects to municipal funds being used for political purposes.

The Golan regional council was given 15 days to explain why it is funding the campaign.