Israel, Syria press details

Security and defense, political relations are addressed first

`We're chugging along'

Joint committees take lead in setting pace toward peace treaty

January 06, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Negotiating teams from Syria and Israel got down to the nitty-gritty of trying to manufacture peace yesterday, hoping to find solutions to the vexing problems of territory, borders and security.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa, who rekindled contact between their countries in a two-day Washington meeting in December, remained in this picturesque old town. But much of the work was being done by their lieutenants gathered in hotel conference rooms.

Work by the first two negotiating committees of Israelis, Syrians and Americans was a matter of "getting down to business, rolling up their sleeves and trying to come to terms with these difficult issues," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. "We're chugging along in a professional manner. We're not on a fast track."

Most of yesterday's work involved reaffirming the negotiating positions that both sides held four years ago, when previous talks broke off, U.S. officials said. The next stage of talks will require new areas of agreement that would "get us from a chugging-along process to a faster pace," Rubin said.

To that end, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had lunch with Barak yesterday and spent an hour with Barak in the afternoon.

President Clinton was absent from Shepherdstown yesterday, the third day in this round of talks, but he is expected back today.

The first two days of talks had been spent largely on disputes between Israelis and Syrians over what issues would be negotiated first -- and what issues would be perceived by the outside world as negotiated first.

The Syrians have persistently said that the starting point for talks had to be Israel's agreement to turn over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel has said it cannot talk about a Golan withdrawal until it learns what security assurances Syria is willing to offer.

Such postures are fairly routine and are aimed at constituencies in the negotiators' home countries as much at the people across the bargaining table. Both Barak and Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad will have trouble selling a peace to their people after 50 years of hostility, and both must appear as tough as possible.

"There's a dance that has to be done," said Bruce Jentleson, a Middle East authority at Duke University. "Barak's major political problem would be if he is perceived as having gotten so invested in peace that he compromises on crucial security issues."

The negotiating committees that got down to work yesterday would appear to give Barak the hawkish credibility he needs. There are four groups: on security and defense, on normalizing political relations, on water rights and on new borders between Israel and Syria.

The security panel was one of the first two committees to meet. The committee, which includes three Syrian generals and two Israeli generals, discussed demilitarized zones and early warning systems against attacks, Rubin said. It did not focus on Syria's support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups in Lebanon, he said.

The borders group, which will focus almost exclusively on Golan withdrawal, and the water committee will not convene until today or Friday, Rubin said.

Rubin was quick to address Syrian concerns by saying that withdrawal from the Golan was discussed informally as early as Tuesday between Americans and Israelis and Americans and Syrians. The Golan is home to 17,000 Jewish settlers and 19,000 indigenous Druze Arabs.

The negotiating committees are meeting in the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, where delegations from all three nations are staying.

The subject of a U.S. contribution to a possible Israeli-Syrian peace continued to prompt as much interest and speculation as the role of the hostile nations themselves.

Rubin flatly denied a report in the Jerusalem Post that the United States has been discussing a bilateral security pact with Israel or bringing Israel into NATO.

"I have heard nothing about a defense pact," he said, even after he asked top administration officials specifically about it. The report was "based on discussions with people who don't seem to know what's going on."

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the Clinton administration will ask Congress for financial and defense assistance to underwrite an Israeli-Syrian peace, but they have declined to discuss specifics. Sources have said the U.S contribution is likely to top $10 billion for Israel alone.

"The administration wants to make sure no one is surprised by an aid request," said Scott Lasensky, a Brookings Institution specialist in foreign aid.

But at the same time, Lasensky added, the White House probably won't fully engage Congress on Israeli-Syrian aid until the countries reach an accord.

"The biggest card the administration has in pushing a package through is success and momentum" in the talks, he said. "Congress realizes that it doesn't want to be an obstacle to peace."

Aid for Syria is also expected. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians have all received substantial U.S. assistance after they negotiated peace with Israel.

"Of course we're going to give it consideration," Rubin said of Syrian aid.

In Israel yesterday, a top government official raised the issue of Syria's relationship with Iran, which continues to call for Israel's annihilation.

While not commenting on the statement directly, Rubin said that one benefit of the ongoing Middle East peace process is the isolation of rejectionist nations such as Iran.

Another nation invoked at the talks yesterday was Lebanon. As a Syrian client state, Lebanon is expected to be intimately involved in any Israeli-Syrian peace accord.

"Obviously it's on everybody's minds" and has been discussed in Shepherdstown, Rubin said. "The Lebanese are not here, so it can't come up in a fully formal way."

Lebanon will be brought into the Israeli-Syrian peace process as it progresses, he said.

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