Israel, Syria end talks with clearer definition of peace U.S. assistance in Mideast is vital part of framework

January 06, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Israeli and Syrian negotiators ended six days of talks on Maryland's Eastern Shore yesterday with a shared vision of a transformed Middle East in which the United States would play a major political and economic role, a senior Israeli official said.

In what a U.S. official called a "significant" step, the two sides reached an understanding on what both mean by a "comprehensive" peace between Israel and the Arab world, the goal of the talks.

Although U.S. officials refused to be specific, the understanding appears to enlist the United States in boosting Syria's relatively poor economy.

"We both understand comprehensiveness to mean that a Syrian-Israeli and a Lebanese-Israeli agreement should lead us toward an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict" and normal relations between Israel and most of the Arab world, said Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich.

This, in turn, will lead to "a new situation in the region, both in the political-diplomatic sense and in the economic sense, and that the effort to bring about that change in the region should be led by the United States," Mr. Rabinovich told The Sun.

Syria has long indicated that a key reason for its willingness to discuss peace with Israel is to forge a better relationship with the United States. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Syria lost its superpower patron.

What appears to have emerged from the Wye talks is a three-way deal in which Syria is assured of improved relations with the United States if it makes peace with Israel.

Syria would not get anywhere near the aid that the United States provides to Israel and Egypt, which together draw about $5 billion annually from the United States. More likely, the United States would help Syria improve its economy through trade with the West and through regional economic ties.

While they ended on an upbeat note, the talks only began to tackle the tough issues blocking a peace treaty. Chief among them are the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, which commands the northern border between Israel and Syria, and just how warm Israeli-Syrian relations will become once a peace treaty is signed.

In a joint statement issued by U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, the negotiators agreed that "a good start was made in developing a general basis for progress on substance and on the procedures for dealing with the main issues to be overcome."

But the parties conceded -- according to the statement -- that "there is still a great deal of work to be done and gaps to be bridged."

Before leaving Wye, Mr. Ross privately praised the negotiators for having accomplished more in 6 days than the two countries' negotiating teams had managed to achieve in the previous four years, officials said.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher will travel to Jerusalem and Damascus next week to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Syrian President Hafez el Assad. During the trip, U.S. officials hope to announce a timetable and an agenda for future negotiations they hope will lead to an agreement.

The two sides will send negotiators back to the United States in late January, probably for another session at the secluded Wye River Conference Centers near Queenstown.

The rustic setting, with a panoramic view of the East Wye River, is "a venue which the parties have found conducive to good talks," a senior administration official said.

Because security issues are crucial to discussion of the Golan Heights, the negotiating teams may be augmented next time by military officials.

Both Israeli and Syrian negotiators emerged optimistic. Walid al-Moualem -- the lead Syrian negotiator and ambassador to the United States -- told his national news agency: "As a result of the talks it was found that progress could be achieved in substance regarding the basic issues despite the existence of difficulties // and gaps on some of the basic elements of peace."

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