Israel-Syria summit gets on track

Procedural snag fixed

talks are `productive'

January 05, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- President Clinton returned to the Shenandoah Valley yesterday to help push the Israeli-Syrian peace process into substantive discussions about land, water, money and defense after procedural disputes temporarily impeded the talks Monday.

Clinton met for 30 minutes with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the afternoon and then included Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa in the session, which lasted for about another hour. A planned face-to-face meeting between Barak and Sharaa, with Clinton as mediator, was canceled Monday night in a dispute over the week's schedule of negotiations.

The afternoon summit, which Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright attended, was described as "quite productive" by State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. Held at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center here, where the delegations are staying, it produced renewed commitment by Barak and Sharaa to work toward peace, Rubin said.

"It was a comprehensive and rigorous discussion of where we are and where we need to get to," Rubin told reporters. "We were quite pleased with how today unfolded in light of the hurdles that we had to overcome last night."

"The process is clearly on track," he added.

Yesterday was the second day of the second round of peace talks. Barak and Sharaa had met with Clinton in December to launch the negotiations, but the sessions were brief and devoted to procedure.

Yesterday, with procedural disagreements out of the way, at least temporarily, Barak and Sharaa were free to broach the explosive matters that have kept their countries in a state of war ever since Israel was founded 50 years ago.

Syria wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, an elevated, Rhode Island-sized tract that Israel won from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. In return, Israel wants full diplomatic recognition by Syria and expensive intelligence and defense capabilities to ensure that its Syrian border stays secure.

Both sides also are concerned about rights to water in the Sea of Galilee, and both are interested in U.S. financial aid to underwrite a peace.

U.S. officials are upbeat

The mood of U.S. officials was noticeably more upbeat than it had been Monday. Rubin said then that the Charles Dickens novel "Great Expectations" was not the book-of-choice among negotiators here. Yesterday he hastened to say that Dickens' "Bleak House" was not the right title either.

The U.S., Israeli and Syrian delegations held a large, informal meeting at the Clarion last night. U.S. officials described it as a social gathering and it lasted about half an hour.

Afterward, Clinton went back to Washington -- by motorcade because of the weather -- but he will remain available for further consultation. The peace talks are open ended but expected to last about 10 days in all.

While diplomats are cautioning that no comprehensive final agreement will be reached in this round of talks, they hope to make substantial progress toward reaching an accord.

Procedures resolved

The idea to drop face-to-face talks by Barak and Sharaa Monday "was partly my decision," Clinton said yesterday. "We just had a lot of other work to do I think they're both very serious. I think they both want an agreement."

Rubin refused to describe the procedural disagreement that caused the meeting's cancellation, but it apparently involved the sequence in which the topics were to be discussed in the negotiations, a problem that has kept the Israelis and Syrians at odds for months.

Syria has insisted that Israel agree to withdraw from all of the strategically important Golan before discussions about normalized relations can go anywhere.

The Syrians had placed the Golan as the first issue to be discussed, but the Israelis want to put it at the bottom of the agenda.

Without mentioning the Golan specifically, the government-controlled Syria Times made clear again yesterday that Syria believes Israel must make the first step toward peace.

Waiting for first move

"Unless there is a breakthrough very soon, the whole process for making peace will come to a dangerous recess," the English-language newspaper said. "Until the Israelis summon the courage to move forward, no real breakthrough is likely to occur."

For its part, Israel says it needs security guarantees before it pulls out of the Golan.

Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon told Israel Radio that his nation wanted to resume talks "on the issue of security, because the scope of a withdrawal depends on what we will receive in return."

The Americans have insisted that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," advancing the notion that the schedule of talks is less important than the final result.

U.S. officials declined to disclose the formula that ended the procedural disagreement, but it was approved after Clinton met with Sharaa late Monday night and Albright met with Barak yesterday morning.

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