MIDEAST . . . CLINTON HUDDLES WITH ASSAD

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President Clinton, continuing his plunge as diplomat-in-chief on this week'sMiddle Easttour, said Syrian President Hafez Assad "went beyond anything he said before" on peace with Israel in a three-hour meeting. The president then raced from Damascus to Jerusalem, where he told lawmakers in the Knesset: "I went there convinced we needed to add new energy to the talks and I'm convinced now that we have."TIME correspondent Lara Marlowe, in the Syrian capital, says, however, that Assad's offer of "full peace" if Israel first withdraws from the disputed Golan Heights is something "he has said before many times."What can be gleaned from the unprecedented closed-door talks, she says, is that negotiations over the last piece of the Mideast peace puzzle have shifted to top levels. Sources on all sides tell Marlowe only a handful of officials -- Assad, his foreign minister, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a U.S. envoy and Clinton himself -- are in on the details. Still, U.S. officials told her today they expect a breakthrough if not a full treaty by year's end. Syrian officials, for their part, said it'll be a lot longer than that. "The Syrians are willing to wait," Marlowe says. "Assad is a very slow, cautious, deliberate person. He's waited since 1967. He can wait another year or two or three."