Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin says he believes Syria wants to reach a peace agreement but that the price being demanded is too high. The comments were made on 22 November at the end of a week-long tour of the US by the Israeli premier, during which Syria’s motives in the peace talks came under attack by US Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who is tipped to become chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.

‘I believe (Syria’s President) Asad wants peace,’ Rabin told reporters in Washington. ‘The problem is that I’m not sure that the peace he wants is exactly the peace we want, and the price of peace is a still a price we cannot meet.’ He said Asad had rejected all proposals for confidence- building measures to help ease Israelis’ deep distrust of its northern neighbour.

A more positive note was struck in Damascus on 23 November when visiting Argentine President Menem said he had a message from Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres stating Israel’s readiness for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Rabin declined to comment on remarks made by Helms, when he called the Syria-Israel peace talks a fraud. Helms said during a television interview on 19 November that Syria was interested, not in peace, but in the Golan Heights and US aid. Helms also said he would oppose including any US troops in a peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

Syria has rebutted Helms’ comments saying he has not looked carefully enough at the developments in the region. US President Clinton also defended the peace process saying he would make a case to Congress for the US to participate in any peacekeeping force, if necessary.

The US Secretary of State Warren Christopher is to press ahead with his mediation efforts in the region on 5-6 December. Christopher’s tour is expected to focus on the Syria-Israel track, but he is also expected to follow closely developments in Gaza since the recent outbreak of violence (see page 6). Christopher said on 21 November that he expected PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would prevail in attempts to maintain calm, but said Arafat needed swift aid disbursements to deliver changes on the ground.

No more serious clashes were reported in Gaza in late November following the 18 November clash between Palestinian police and Islamist demonstrators outside the Palestine mosque in Gaza City. About 12 demonstrators were shot dead. Both Islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to participate in a PLO-led inquiry into the incident.