Clinton rejoins Mideast talks

He tries to break impasse over Israel's Golan Heights pullout

`Very difficult issues'

January 07, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- President Clinton returned to the Israeli-Syrian peace talks yesterday to try to break a deadlock over how to negotiate Israel's withdrawal from all or part of the Golan Heights.

Clinton met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa to try to "get the parties rolling up their sleeves and proceeding to do the substantive work in a professional and -- hopefully soon -- in an accelerated way," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.

Last night, U.S. officials called the meetings "good and constructive" without revealing details and said Clinton, who was to return to Washington last night, would return to Shepherdstown today.

The impasse apparently grew serious Wednesday evening, when Israeli and Syrian delegates had their last direct contact. Yesterday the delegations stayed separated within the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, relying on Americans to carry messages between them.

The president's helicopter arrived in the afternoon.

In the morning, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright spent 90 minutes with Sharaa, reviewing what small common ground he shares with the Israelis and presumably seeking new areas of agreement.

Albright was preparing what Rubin called "a working document" on areas of agreement. Comments from U.S. officials suggested that the document is mainly an affirmation of where negotiations stood in 1996, when previous talks broke off.

The meeting between Albright and Sharaa "gave them the opportunity to review all the major, substantive issues" and was "a constructive discussion," Rubin said. "It's fair to say that both parties have heard more about the positions of the other side than they knew when they were coming in" to Shepherdstown.

Separating the parties and using Americans as intermediaries is a common diplomatic tactic, Rubin said, and shouldn't be taken as a sign of discord.

He offered no evidence of progress, though working committees on security matters and normalizing political relations spent much of Wednesday at the table. The committees included Syrians, Israelis and Americans.

Israeli and Syrian officials have indicated dissatisfaction with the pace of negotiations. Barak and Sharaa, the principals in their delegations, have not been in the same room since Tuesday night.

In Washington yesterday, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger sounded a cautious note.

"One should not underestimate the degree of difficulty of what is involved here," Berger said. "These are very difficult issues that divide the parties. There are very strong views on both sides."

Friction continued yesterday. From the start, Syria has demanded that Israel agree to withdrawal from the Golan Heights before it will discuss peace. The Golan is a strategic plateau, formerly Syria's, that Israel occupied during the Six Day War in 1967.

Barak has indicated that he is willing to discuss a Golan pullback but needs substantial security guarantees from Syria first.

A seven-hour meeting of the security working committee Wednesday gave Barak the airing of defense issues he wanted. But as of late yesterday, for reasons that are unclear, the committee on borders and Golan withdrawal hadn't met, putting off the issue the Syrians deem most crucial.

There are four working committees: security, borders, political relations and water rights.

Israeli and Syrian diplomats in Shepherdstown continued to say little yesterday, but government officials in their countries left little doubt about their positions.

In Israel, Cabinet minister Haim Ramon, who said he had spoken to Barak Wednesday night, told Israel radio that Barak is demanding a demilitarized Golan Heights in the event of a peace agreement. Israel submitted that demand Wednesday, he said.

"The feet of Syrian soldiers will not tread on the [Golan] Heights, and we are demanding demilitarization of tens of kilometers into Syrian territory," Ramon said.

In Syria, the government-controlled news media called on Israel to commit itself to a total Golan withdrawal.

"Until now, no such commitment has been made," the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper said.

The Tishrin newspaper said: "Syria will not give up one iota of land or any of its rights." It added that Syria "is ready to fulfill the other requirements of peace once the Israelis return the entire occupied territory."

To a large degree, the tension in Shepherdstown is unfinished business from when the talks were being planned.

Israel and Syria had agreed to resume discussions where they left off four years ago, without saying what that meant. The ambiguity allowed them to return to the table without public preconditions but added to the work that must be done.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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