Syria, Israel focus talks

Technical experts on critical issues accompany leaders

'Off to good start' in W. Va.

Everything on table, but complete pact not expected this round

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

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. VA — SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. -- Intensive Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations that restarted yesterday in this isolated college town showed "real seriousness" but are not expected to produce a final accord in their expected span of 10 clays or so, U.S, officials said.

The large Middle Eastern delegations that descended here yesterday "hope to achieve real progress," said StateDepartment spokesman James P. Rubin.

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."

President Clinton devoted yesterday to launching the second round of the negotiations, which commenced last month and are aimed at ending a half-century state of war between Israel and Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who met for two days in Washington last month, are leading the talks.

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

A trilateral meeting lnvolving CIinton, Barak and Sharaa was scheduled for last night but it was canceled. Asked if this suggested a sign of trouble, Rubin did not reject the idea.

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

Hours earlier, Clinton pronounced the talks "off to a good start" and is prepared to spend as much time as necessary in Shepherdstown to reach a deal, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. While Clinton was expected to fly back to Washington last night, his schedule this week is mostly clear, and he will be available to return, Lockhart said.

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, lsrael'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; Assad seemed prepared to make peace and settle a border with his Jewish enemies,

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, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. 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.

While all subjects will be discussed, the order in which they are tackled may reveal details of negotiating developments. Syria wants to draw new borders first and talk about security assurances later. Israel wants security guarantees before it agrees to cede the Golan, a massive redoubt and lofty listening post.

U.S. officials declined to comment on reports in the Israeli media that the main topics on the table today will be security and normalization of relations.

In the past, major Middle East peace agreements have been facilitated by billions in U.S. financial assistance, and the subject of aid came up again yesterday'. Security arrangements for Israel against Syria could cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $10 billion, sources have said.

While declining to speculate on the cost of an aid package, U.S. officials made it obvious yesterday that the administration will seek substantial aid from Congress for an Israeli-Syrian peace.

"This is a big, big deal, and a deal this big is going to carry a price tag," Rubin said. "One can contribute far smaller amounts to secure a peace than one might have to pay if peace turns to conflict.''

Many analysts believe that U.S. troops could eventually patrol an Israeli-Syrian border agreed upon in peace negotiations. Rubin said yesterday that that's "not a foregone conclusion.'

New questions were also raised yesterday about Shaara's authority at the talks with the absence of Assad.

"The foreign minister does have all the necessary negotiating authority to be here this week," Lockhart said.

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