Amid frustration, Christopher joins Israelis, Syrians at talks U.S. officials hoped for greater progress, more strategic focus

January 05, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Warren Christopher joined Israeli-Syrian negotiations on the Eastern Shore late yesterday as the Clinton administration hinted at frustration with the narrow focus of the talks so far.

Mr. Christopher left the Pentagon by helicopter at 5:30 p.m. and was to spend several hours with the three Israelis and three Syrians, staying through dinner.

Before Mr. Christopher left Washington, his spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said the secretary wanted "to take the temperature, to assess what progress has been made."

The talks have been mediated by Dennis Ross, a top adviser to the secretary. Mr. Christopher has been in phone contact with Mr. Ross two or three times daily and spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, but last night marked the first time he had attended the talks.

The negotiations, at the secluded Wye River Conference Centers near Queenstown, are scheduled to end at midday today, concluding the second three-day session in two weeks. Mediators have imposed a news blackout on the talks.

Mr. Christopher, who has made achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace a top priority, plans to discuss the results of the Wye talks with Mr. Peres and Syrian President Hafez el Assad next week when he makes his 16th trip to the Middle East.

"I wouldn't see this as the secretary rushing in at some climactic moment of the negotiations," Mr. Burns said of last night's dinner meeting. "I would not want to lead you to believe that somehow we're at some defining moment."

The absence of such a moment is starting to worry U.S. officials who have been following the progress of the talks, which resumed last week after a six-month stalemate.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the negotiators are "still talking to details and not to a larger, more strategic picture."

The official said the Israelis and Syrians "need to think more strategically, think bigger," adding, "The Achilles heel in the past has been as much the architecture as it has been the substance."

If peace is reached between Israel and Syria, it could go a long way toward transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. An agreement would likely be quickly followed by a treaty between Israel and Lebanon, which is largely controlled by Syria.

These two pacts would formally end the state of war between the Jewish state and all of its immediate Arab neighbors and probably lead to normal ties with most of the Arab world.

The Clinton administration, Israel and Syria have maintained a public posture of cautious optimism throughout the two weeks of talks, particularly after the negotiators remained in the Washington area through New Year's weekend.

The administration hopes a peace agreement can be signed before the Israeli elections, scheduled for the end of October at the latest. An agenda and a timetable for future talks are expected to be announced during Mr. Christopher's Middle East trip. An Israeli official said an agenda has started to take shape at the Wye talks.

The Israeli said Syria's negotiators have agreed to discuss Israel's ideas about a "comprehensive peace," and the components of a normalization of relations between the two countries, which have been bitter enemies since Israel was founded in 1948.

The two sides still have to work out other aspects of future negotiations, including their location, the rank of negotiators from each country, and the extent of U.S. involvement.

These future talks would have to deal with the tough substantive issues, including the swap of land on the strategic Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, in return for a peace.

Israel wants the talks to be shifted closer to the Middle East, but Syria has yet to agree.

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