WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told President Clinton yesterday that he would make an intensive effort in coming weeks to restart peace talks with Syria that collapsed in 1996, the Israeli delegation said.
But Barak warned that Israel would not return to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, either on the Golan Heights or the West Bank.
Greeted warmly as a peacemaker, Barak plunged into the substance of Arab-Israeli diplomacy in a 2 1/2-hour, private meeting with Clinton in the Treaty Room of the White House residential wing, saying this generation has a historic opportunity to end the conflict.
According to Israeli officials, Barak laid out the main thrust of his strategy to tackle negotiations simultaneously with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. The discussions with Clinton were to continue last night at Camp David.
"We are approaching a moment of truth," a senior Israeli official said. "We have to find a way to minimize the risks and enhance opportunities."
The official described Barak as prepared to make a "painful compromise" over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war. However, he rejected Syria's demand for a return to the June 4, 1967, border, which would give Damascus greater control over the area's precious water supply.
"Syrians can't expect to put their feet into the Sea of Galilee," the senior Israeli official said. He stressed that the final line of withdrawal could not be settled until Israel and Syria had agreed on other key matters, including normalization of relations and peace between Israel and Lebanon, which Syria controls.
He indicated that Jewish settlements on the West Bank would be consolidated in a way that would allow most settlers to remain. He reiterated Israel's long-standing position, which is not accepted by the United States or much of the world, that an undivided Jerusalem should remain Israel's capital. The Palestinians want Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
U.S. officials offered few details in their accounts of the meeting, but said Clinton had praised Barak as sincere, thoughtful, clearly committed to pursuing peace and scrupulous about carrying out his commitments.
Barak, they said, praised NATO's intervention in Kosovo as a boost to stability and a warning to aggressors worldwide.
The private meeting began after Clinton extended Barak an effusive Rose Garden welcome.
"America will walk with you," Clinton told the new prime minister as they answered reporters' questions.
"I came here as a messenger of the people of Israel who have called for change and renewal. And I am determined to bring about change and renewal," said Barak in the Rose Garden. "It is our intention to inject new momentum into the peace process and to put it back on all tracks. For this we need American leadership and support all along the way."
Barak gives ground
On one point where they differed, Barak gave ground, saying that he would postpone further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank under the 1998 Wye River accords only if the Palestinian leadership agreed.
The Israeli leader aroused Palestinian anxiety with his recent proposal to merge the implementation of last year's agreement on partial withdrawal with "final status" negotiations on the major issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians. He argued that the painful step of withdrawal should be saved for the occasion of a major agreement.
But he softened his position yesterday after Clinton, who spent many hours on the Eastern Shore brokering the Wye deal, noted that the Palestinians have a stake in the agreement "and they have their expectations."
"We abide by international agreements, Wye agreement included," Barak said. "If we together agree, whether with the Americans and [Yasser] Arafat, that something could be made in order to bring those two elements together, I hope and believe that even the international press would not resist it very forcefully."
Apart from a difference on that issue, Clinton seemed ready to give every benefit of the doubt to his guest, whom he warmly welcomed in the Rose Garden as a leader who "has put Middle East peace at the top of his agenda." The atmosphere yesterday recalled the partnership that existed before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when Clinton acted to smooth the way for Israel's peace efforts.
U.S. may step back
Clinton agreed with Barak that American officials should step back from their direct and detailed involvement in every step of the peace process.
"We took a more active role, in effect as a mediator, when the bonds of trust and the lines of communication had become so frayed that we were in danger of losing the peace process," he said, referring to the bitter breakdown in negotiations under the government of Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
"It is far better for them to take as large a role as possible in making those agreements."
Afterward, Barak met with Vice President Al Gore and discussed efforts to prevent Russian leaks of weapons technology to Iran and ways to prevent such environmental problems as water from aggravating Middle East tensions.
Barak and his wife, Nava, were to have dinner with the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton last night at Camp David and stay overnight. This morning, Barak is scheduled to have breakfast at Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's house in Georgetown before meeting with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen at the Pentagon.
Pub Date: 7/16/99