Syria, Israel start slowly

1st meeting of Sharaa, Barak scrubbed, but U.S. still optimistic

Tone of 'real seriousness'

Separately, leaders meet with Clinton, Albright in W.Va. delayed

January 04, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- The second round of Syrian-Israeli peace talks got off to a seemingly rough start yesterday as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa failed to hold a scheduled face-to-face meeting last night.

Instead, Barak and Sharaa met separately with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. U.S. officials blamed the canceled summit of Barak, Sharaa and Clinton on earlier meetings that ran longer than expected.

"I wouldn't exaggerate the significance of it," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, who noted that Barak and Sharaa had previously met face to face in Washington.

Still, the scrubbed meeting was at least an early symbolic blow to the negotiations that began in this isolated college town yesterday. And there were other signs that the process had hit rough water.

The Syrians and Israelis haven't agreed on a work plan for this week's talks, Rubin said. And there is no guarantee that Barak and Sharaa will meet face to face today.

"There were certainly exaggerated expectations as to how easy it would be to reach an agreement," Rubin said last night.

Earlier yesterday, Rubin described the tone of discussions as "real seriousness," and said the large Israeli and Syrian delegations that descended here "hope to achieve real progress."

But, he added, "I think it's fair to say that the Charles Dickens novel `Great Expectations' is not the novel that is being read by negotiators. We do not expect to be able to achieve a core agreement in one round of talks."

The negotiations are aimed at ending a half-century state of war between Israel and Syria. The talks resumed last month in Washington, ending a more than 3-year freeze.

The heart of any agreement would be the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Israel captured the strategic area during the 1967 Mideast war, and both sides have acknowledged that an Israeli pullout is essential to any comprehensive peace accord.

Arriving by helicopter late yesterday morning, Clinton met first with Barak and then with Sharaa for about an hour apiece. The meetings, described as "formal" by a U.S. official, were held at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown.

The bilateral talks continued through the day, with Clinton and Albright trying to set the stage for a fruitful face-to-face, late night meeting between Barak and Sharaa. But the only time the two Mideast leaders were together was a photo opportunity with Clinton on a pedestrian bridge.

Clinton returned to the White House last night. But he has cleared his schedule for the week and will return here if needed, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

In what the Clinton administration painted as evidence of Israel's and Syria's earnest intent to reach an accord, Barak and Sharaa were joined by dozens of experts in the volatile matters that divide their nations: security, territory and water rights. The negotiators include top Israeli generals, Israel's attorney general and key Syrian officials.

"The delegations are large," the negotiations "highly technical," Rubin said. "As you know, the devil is in the details, and the detail men will play a critical role."

The diplomats are staying in the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Shepherdstown, chosen in part because it has enough rooms for all the parties to stay in the same hotel.

When Syrian and Israeli diplomats met at Maryland's Wye Plantation in 1995 and 1996, they lacked both top leaders and knowledgeable technicians. This time they have both.

Barak and Sharaa, who is standing in for ailing Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, are the highest officials from their countries to sit face-to-face at the peace table.

Previous Israeli-Syrian discussions broke off in 1996 amid a flurry of terrorist attacks inside Israel. December marked the first public meeting of both sides since then, as Barak fulfilled an election pledge to seek peace.

The talks are shrouded in secrecy. Besides agreeing to stay in the rustic Shenandoah Valley, the Israeli and Syrian diplomats gave up their cell phones to avoid distractions and lessen the chance of news leaks, U.S. officials said, suggesting to reporters that this was a significant gesture.

Israeli and Syrian diplomats referred reporters' questions to U.S. officials, and U.S. spokesmen have declined to disclose details or schedules of negotiations except to say that "everything is on the table."

"Everything" includes, at the top of the list, Syria's desire to regain the strategic Golan Heights plateau. Other thorny issues include security assurances for both sides, water rights, the timetable for normalizing relations and Israel's occupation of a portion of southern Lebanon.

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