U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (Dem.-Florida), who met with Syrian President Bashar Assad last week, came away with the impression that Assad is finding it difficult to rule Syria and is under the heavy influence of the old guard in the Ba'ath regime. In a report reaching Jerusalem yesterday about the Assad-Nelson talks, doubts were raised about Assad's ability to make decisions and implement them.

But an American source said last night the U.S. did not encourage Israel to avoid renewing negotiations with Syria. "We don't trust Assad and don't like him and maybe his proposal was only spin for the media. But we take Syria seriously, and if Israel wants to talk with Syria, we won't get in its way."

Nelson presented Assad with a series of difficult questions about Syrian support for Palestinian terror and Hezbollah and was met with evasiveness. The Syrian president did not deal directly with the American complaints but prefered to respond with questions of his own instead of to the point answers.

Asked about Iranian weapons transports to Hezbollah through Syria, he responded, "Is there any evidence?" In response to questions about Palestinian rejection front organizations in Damascus, he answered, "There are thousands of them in the territories and only a handful Damascus. It's not the problem."