Mideast Peace Process
JAMES D. BESSER WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
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ublicly, administration of-
ficials remain upbeat about
the faltering Syrian-Israeli
peace talks. But the un-
successful mission by Mideast
Peace Process coordinator Den-
nis Ross has dimmed expecta-
tions that a deal might be in the
offing before the end of the year
— or before the Israeli elections
'The administration came into
these latest talks with much
higher expectations than the Is-
raelis," said a leading pro-Israel
activist here. "We expressed our
concern that they were expecting
more than [Syrian President
Hafez al-] Assad was likely to de-
Israeli officials, too, tried to
dampen expectations — to no
avail. The result was a strong
dose of disappointment when the
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erratic Mr. Assad refused to set
a date for the resumption of talks
between military officials of the
Those talks began in Decem-
ber, but quickly broke down in
the wake of Syrian claims that
Israel was not willing to discuss
a genuine withdrawal from the
Golan Heights. They resumed
last month after a deal engi-
neered by Washington; they were
supposed to continue after Mr.
Ross returned and after Syrian
and Israeli negotiators had a
chance to consult with their gov-
Mr. Assad's abrupt decision
not to set a date for the security
talks produced a flurry of angry
calls from administration officials
over the weekend and angry out-
bursts from the Israeli govern-
ment, which accused the Syrians
of violating the agreement that
resulted in the resumption of
Israeli ambassador Itamar Ra-
binovich, who also heads the ne-
gotiations with the Syrians, has
said that Israel should know by
Aug. 1 whether the Syrians are
serious about making peace.
There is a growing feeling that
the answer will be a negative one.
Prayer Fax Fight
On Capitol Hill
Within minutes of President Bill
Clinton's speech supporting reli-
gious activity in schools, but re-
jecting a proposed "religious
equality" amendment that crit-
ics say would blur the church-
state line, religious and civil
liberties organizations of every
variety were clogging the phone
lines with their FAXed reactions.
And in true Washington style,
groups with conflicting agendas
drew very different conclusions
from the speech.
Pat Robertson's Christian
Coalition, a prime mover behind
the amendment, said that "while
differences remain on the issue
of a constitutional amendment,
the president has now agreed
with our longstanding position
— that public schools should not
be religion-free zones."
Elliot Mincberg, legal director
for People for the American Way,
said that the Christian Coalition
statement missed the point by a
"They claim that the speech
shows that there is a widespread
deprivation of religious rights,"
he said. "In fact, the president
was very careful not to say that,
but that is the way some groups
are interpreting it."
Mr. Mincberg praised the
speech for different reasons.
"We've heard for too long from
people who say that we need a
constitutional amendment be-
cause kids can't read their Bibles
in school," he said. "The president
said that we need to educate peo-
ple about their rights rather than
monkey with the Constitution .
I would rather trust my freedoms
to James Madison than to Newt
Gingrich and Pat Robertson."
Leaders of the Anti-Defama-
tion League agreed that the pres-
ident "has demonstrated why the
proposed religious equality
amendment is misguided and un-
American Friends of Lubav-
itch had a different slant; the
Chasidic group used the speech
as an opportunity to remind the