Peres, Clinton pledge new push for Syrian peace track

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dismissed as a virtual lost cause before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli-Syrian peace has moved onto the diplomatic center stage.

In meetings with President Clinton and in his own address to a joint session of Congress during his first visit here since taking charge of Israel last month, Prime Minister Shimon Peres injected urgency into the prospect of negotiating with Israel's northern neighbor.

"Together, we shall…reach…a lasting and a secure peace — a peace for the whole of the Middle East," Peres said at a joint news conference with Clinton after their meeting Monday.

Clinton said, "As Israel continues to take risks for a lasting and comprehensive peace, the United States will stand with you to minimize those risks and to ensure your success.

"I pledge to you personally, Shimon, that I will be your partner in peace," he added.

While both leaders refused to divulge details, one sign of potential movement on the Israel-Syria track was Clinton's announcement that he was sending Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region over the weekend.

Christopher will visit Damascus and Jerusalem in an effort to restart the stalled talks.

Syrian President Hafez Assad abruptly broke off security talks last year.

Syria has demanded that Israel commit to withdrawing from all of the Golan Heights before restarting negotiations. Israeli officials have asked for a specific definition of peace and security arrangements before committing to territorial concessions.

Israel has, however, considered a gradual withdrawal from the region.

Peres said he "would not exclude any method" to restart talks with Syria, and Clinton said that on Monday, "President Assad told me he was committed to…move the peace process forward."

"Very frankly…I think the Syrian leader and the Syrian people now see the exceptional price that former Prime Minister Rabin and Prime Minister Peres [paid] in their quest for peace," Clinton said.

Talks between American and Israeli officials about a formal strategic alliance between Israel and the United States as an incentive for the Jewish state to trade the Golan for peace have been inconclusive.

Clinton and Peres also found time to formalize a plan for U.S.-Israeli space cooperation, in which the United States will conduct Israeli experiments aboard both staffed and unstaffed space flights. NASA will also begin training Israeli astronauts for an eventual mission to the planned U.S.-Russian space station, officials said.

During his visit Peres met with Christopher, Secretary of Defense William Perry and Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

On Tuesday, during an emotional address to a joint meeting of Congress, Peres sent Assad a message of peace.

"Without forgetting the past, let us not look back. Let fingertips touch a new hope. Let each party yield to the other, each giving consideration to the respective needs of the other," he said.

"Without illusion but with resolve, we stand ready to make demanding decisions, if you are. We stand ready to work relentlessly until all gaps are bridged, if you are."

Peres got a thunderous standing ovation as he entered the chamber. Listeners applauded often during his address, especially after his appeal to Assad.

Alluding to Congress' doubts about U.S. troops possibly monitoring a future Israeli-Syrian peace accord, Peres said, "Let me assure you that never shall we ask your sons and daughters to fight instead of ours."

Recalling the fallen Rabin, he said, "Two weeks and 20 years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson stood on this very spot and said, `All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.' Mr. Speaker, all I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today. My senior partner is gone."

Peres also rededicated himself to peace with the Palestinians.

"As far as we are concerned, democracy, and that includes Palestinian democracy, is the best and probably the only ultimate guarantee for a durable peace," he said.

Peres praised Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat for being "engaged in the new realities of his people" and for his "solemn promise to intensify his fight against terror."

As Peres held talks in Washington, D.C., Cabinet ministers back home expressed doubts about reaching an agreement with Syria.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff said no technology can substitute for the Golan's strategic value under threat of war.

"But the central question," said Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, "is what kind of peace is being discussed? And where is it possible to make concessions?"

Meanwhile, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu maintained that Israel could reach a peace agreement with Syria and keep the Golan.

"Assad will adjust his expectations to what he thinks he can get from the current government," he told reporters.