Israeli and U.S. officials say Syrian peace still far off

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NEW YORK — Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak is quashing notions that any breakthrough is near in the peace talks with Syria.

The latest round of talks between Israel and Syria is going slowly but evinces "moderate and measured advancement" at every meeting, Barak told members of the Jewish media Friday of last week.

Private peace talks resumed Jan. 24 at Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland and are a prelude to a regional shuttle mission by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher slated for early next month.

Barak also said Israel would be "ready for full withdrawal from South Lebanon" if Lebanon suppresses terrorist activity by the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah.

The foreign minister was looking ahead to direct peace negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, which are not anticipated until after a deal is reached with Syria, its patron.

He said Israeli withdrawal would be contingent on the Lebanese government's treating the South Lebanon Army "the same as other militias" that have been disarmed in recent years. Soldiers should be allowed to join the defense forces of the Lebanese army or go home, he said.

The South Lebanon Army operates in the area of southern Lebanon where the Israel Defense Force maintains a "security zone."

Meanwhile, Barak said Syrian President Hafez Assad "clearly wants peace with the [United States] and has decided he can't achieve it without peace with Israel."

But Assad "tries to do it his way, not Israel's way," Barak added.

It will be clear in the coming weeks whether the two ways are "bridgeable," said Barak, who was on his first visit to the United States since Prime Minister Shimon Peres named him foreign minister in the wake of the November assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Israel is emphasizing early normalization, a peace that is comprehensive, and terrorism, water and security arrangements that reduce the incentive for both sides to launch an attack, he said.

Only when these matters are addressed will Israel know "the depth of peace" Syria is seeking and the extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights that is "commensurate" with that, Barak said.

For years, negotiations have gotten stuck on Syria's insistence that Israel spell out in advance its commitment to full withdrawal.

Barak said the current talks, which he termed "exploratory," reflected an effort to bypass this obstacle.

But the foreign minister added, "We're not going to have peace at any price. We want peace, but only if it can be achieved without violating our security and vital interests."

Prime Minister Shimon Peres is known to view an agreement with Syria as an asset at the ballot box in national elections that will take place later this year.

Recently, however, he has expressed caution about the complexity of military issues under discussion.

"There is progress. It is still not a breakthrough. We have not solved all the problems. It's always a matter of definition," Peres told Israel's Channel 1 on Sunday.

In recent weeks, Peres has said it would be impossible to reach an agreement before the elections unless the pace of the talks was accelerated.

On the same day of the Barak meeting, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns cautioned against being too optimistic.

"We're going to have to work very hard and not build our expectations up too high" that the talks at the Wye Plantation "are going to produce immediately a peace agreement," he said.

Meanwhile, Barak played down the importance of peacekeeping troops on the Golan.

"I don't think it is a crucial element" of any agreement, he said.

Such troops or "monitors" would not necessarily have to be Americans, he also said.

The Clinton administration has offered to send troops to participate in an international force on the Golan to monitor the implementation of a peace treaty if both Israel and Syria make such a request.

Although Barak noted that the United States "enjoys the trust and respect of both sides" in a way no other nation does, he also said, "If it's sensitive for the American public, it can be put aside."

Last week, Iran's media launched a public attack on Syria over the peace talks, leading Western observers to speculate the outburst presages a break between the two countries.

According to the Teheran daily Abrar, which reflects the views of Iranian spiritual leader Ali Akhbar Khamenei, "Syria is now abjectly seeking peace. Its representatives have even had dinner with the Zionist delegation."

While the invective does not refer directly to Syrian President Hafez Assad, it contains an oblique warning that Syrian leaders face assassination if they sign an accord with Israel.