Risking personal diplomacy in the most intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, President Clinton brought a secret proposal to Israel and Syria on Thursday aimed at ending their dangerous stalemate in four to six months, U.S. officials said.
The president refused to discuss the proposal, but flying to Israel after nearly four hours of talks in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad, Clinton said aboard Air Force One, "We had some advances that were not insignificant, and I feel good about it."
Facing some criticism at home for visiting a state that remains on the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism, Clinton said, "I'm certainly confident I did the right thing . . . and that we accelerated the (peace) process.
While declining to discuss specifics, administration officials said the U.S. proposal seeks to establish a timetable coordinating Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights _ captured from Syria in 1967 _ and movement toward a peace treaty that includes security guarantees to prevent the strategic heights from becoming a threat to Israel.
A senior Clinton aide said the proposal is aimed at achieving an initial agreement in four to six months, although he cautioned that might be a bit optimistic.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher will return to the region to shepherd the process along.
Syria was the most difficult and important stop on Clinton's four-day tour of the Middle East, which ends today with a visit to U.S. troops in Kuwait. Despite progress in peacemaking between Israel and other Arab adversaries, U.S. officials said they had been concerned that the Israeli-Syrian talks, suspended since February, could drag on for more than a year and collapse.
But, as a result of his face-to-face session with Assad, the president said he saw a genuine sign of progress, which was reflected at a joint news conference in which Assad spelled out with some specifics his view of what it would take for him to make peace with Israel.
Assad said he had stressed to Clinton "the readiness of Syria to commit itself to the objective requirements of peace through the establishment of peaceful, normal relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal" from the Golan Heights and from southern Lebanon.
That was not new. But U.S. officials were heartened by what Assad no longer appeared to be demanding before making peace: an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and a determination of Jerusalam's status.
Thursday night, a few hours after his Damascus visit, Clinton reported on his talks with Assad in a speech to the Israeli Knesset, the first such presidential appearance since President Carter spoke in 1979.
"We have been urging President Assad to speak to you in a language of peace that you can understand," Clinton said. "Today he began to do so."
Clinton solemnly pledged the United States would never compromise Israel's security. But he said he saw in Assad's words indications that "something is changing in Syria."
"They are coming to understand that it is time to make peace," Clinton said. "There will still be a good deal of hard bargaining before a breakthrough, but they are serious about proceeding."
And just as the United States supported Israel when it concluded agreements with Egypt, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan, the latter just Wednesday, Clinton pledged: "So too we will walk with you on the road to Damascus to achieve peace and security."
In a news conference with Clinton later, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin applauded the Damascus trip, saying that it could open "better possibilities" and "better negotiations" with Syria.
Clinton said he regretted that Assad did not publicly call for an end to terrorist attacks against innocent civilians.
"He said to me, "You know, we have to end the killing of innocents wherever it occurs, whether it was on that bus (in Tel Aviv last week, when a suicide bomber killed 22 passengers) or in Hebron,'
" last February, when an Israeli settler massacred 29 Muslims at prayer.
At the news conference earlier in Damascus, by contrast, a combative Assad said that he and Clinton did not discuss terrorism as a separate issue during their meeting. Assad denied that Syria practices terrorism and challenged those in the room to name "anything that proves that Syria has done a single terrorist act."
He angrily suggested that the issue of terrorism has been unfairly raised to discredit Syria because of its differences with Israel.
And when asked by a reporter to allay Israeli fears for its security and its mistrust of Syria, the usually laconic Assad vehemently ridiculed Israel's concerns and said, "Anyone who does not believe what we are saying . . . it would be he who does not want peace. What also makes us believe that they (Israel) want peace? We have many proofs which we have against them that they do not want peace."
Visiting Syria was politically risky for Clinton because the country has been on the State Department's list of countries that harbor terrorists or have encouraged terrorist attacks since 1979. He is the first U.S. president to visit Syria since Richard Nixon in 1974.
Syria is one of the Middle East's most brutal regimes, one that ordered the slaughter of as many as 25,000 of its own people during a 1982 uprising. Assad also is alleged to have supported the groups held responsible for the 1983-84 suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies and U.S. Marine headquarters in Lebanon that killed more than 300 Americans.
A State Department report this year credited Syria for furthering Middle East peace by persuading the radical Hezbollah group to stop its rocket attacks on northern Israel, but said it had not halted Iran's resupply of Hezbollah via Syria. While citing Syria for supporting and offering haven to terrorists, the report said the country had moved to "restrain the international activities of some of these groups."