President Carter said today that he would like to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad to discuss the Mideast peace negotiations now taking place between Egypt and Israel.
The ostensible purpose of such a meeting would be to discuss what role Syria might play in the negotiations which continued today as Israel Prime Minister Menahem Begin flew to Ismailia, Egypt, for talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. A meeting with Assad could take place during the Mideast leg of Carter's upcoming around the world trip.
"We are hopeful, though, [the Syrians] will come into the discussions," Carter said. But he also noted that the Mideast talks could continue and agreements could be reached on several key issues without the participation of the Syrians, who so far have publicly frowned on the talks.
"The only territorial matter involving the Syrians is the [Israel-occupied] Golan Heights area. Of course, the Syrians are also deeply interested in the question of the Palestinians Arabs and the [Israeli-held] West Bank as well," Carter said.
"But there is no reason for them to be directly involved in those negotiations," the President said. "There could be a complete settlement of the Gaza Strip, West Bank [and] Palestinian Arab question without the Syrian's participation."
Carter's hope for talks with Assad came only one day after the President announced that while in Iran, the second stop on the trip, he will confer with King Hussein of Jordan. The announcement added a sense of immediacy to a trip originally planned for long-ranged foreign policy purposes.
The possibility of a meeting with Assad during the trip had always been considered likely, and Carter's statement today seemed not only to inch that possibility a step closer to reality, but to also suggest that peace in the Middle East is emerging as one theme of the trip.
By pointedly taking time during a busy Christmas morning schedule to discuss the Middle East - at an impromptu press conference in front of his mother-in-law's home - Carter seemed to be attempting to establish a relatively high U.S. profile in the peace talks.
And, by making an overture toward Syria, the President appeared to be emphasizing the U.S. concern for a comprehensive peace between all of the parties in the Middle East. Indeed, Carter said it is "foreseeable" - but not predictable - that such an all-encompassing peace settlement could be reached during 1978.
The participation of Syria is such an accord is considered crucial because Syria has been one of the most militant Arab states. Moreover, one of the stickiest issues in a comprehensive settlement would be resolution of the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 war.
Carter said today that he believes, based on private discussions between Assad and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance when the two met earlier this month in Syria, that the Syrian President regards the talks in a "much less abusive or negative" way "than public reports" have suggested.
Carter said that King Hussein "has never rejected coming into the discussions at some later date," and in any discussion of the question of the Palestinian Arabs.
"He has, I think, taken a very positive toward the Cairo-Israeli meetings," the President said. "But his absence is not an obstacle to progress at this point."
Syria has generally been expected to be approached only later in the negotiations, which now seem to be aimed at first achieving a tentative Israeli-Egyptian accord before moving on to a comprehensive peace agreement. Syrian involvement now, in the view of many observers, would probably stall the Egypt-Israel initiative.
Carter said that he had called Ismailia this morning from his mother's home and talked with Sadat and Begin shortly after the talks began and would talk with them again at the end of their first-day session.
The President told reporters that today was a "crucial" one in the effort to obtain a comprehensive peace. He said he told Sadat and Begin "that they have my best wishes and support and that the whole world awaits the peace that they can bring us on this Christmas Day."
Talk of the Middle East was the only issue-oriented activity today for the President, who otherwise appeared to be enjoying a traditional Christmas holiday with his family before returning to Washington on Monday.
The family got an early start this morning, leaving home in a wooded area of this small farm town at 6:30 a.m. to exchange presents and have breakfast with the President's mother6, Miss Lilian, at the Pond House, her roomy cottage just outside the city.
After breakfast, the family exchanged more presents at the home of Rosalynn Carter's mother, Miss Allie (Smith). Then the President, Mrs. Carter and daughter Amy went first to Sunday school at the Plains Baptists Church and then to church services at the Maranatha Baptist Church.
Both congregations were formerly the Plains Baptist Church, but split last summer. The Maranatha group includes most of those who, in a divisive issue within the Plain congregation, voted to overturn a long-standing church ban on membership by blacks.
At the Plains church, the President declined an opportunity to teach a Sunday school class. "I'd rather listen this morning. That's what I came for, to hear you," Carter said to regular teacher Clarence Dodson. The subject of the Sunday school lesson was "hope for a better day."
In church, where the subject of Minister Fred Collins' sermon was "Fear Not," the President worked the Middle East meeting into some remarks he made.
"I hope everybody will pary that we make progress in the Middle East," he told the congregation of about 125 in the white wooden countryside church.He then led a prayer for peace and later left the church in the bright noonday sun for dinner at Miss Allie's before going home.
For Christmas, the President gave his wife a wristwatch and received a T-shirt from sons Chip and Jeff, and a handwoven tweed jacket that Miss Lillian got in Ireland.
Daughter Amy received an electric train set, some books, clothes and other toys. The President also said he had several books and a recording of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 8th Symphony.
This evening, the President visited his uncle, 89-year-old Alton (Buddy) Carter, and then along with Miss Lillian went to eat at the home of his brother Billy.