Mideast talks ending with some progress

Israel, Syria accept U.S. document as step to next negotiations

'Ideas ... we consider new'

Recess likely to come today or tomorrow

Barak heads home

January 10, 2000|By Jay Hancock, | Jay Hancock,,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Israeli and Syrian diplomats, winding down a week of peace talks, have agreed to use a U.S. working document as a "starting point" for a peace agreement but are still far apart on critical issues, including security and borders, U.S. officials said yesterday.

President Clinton, who presented the seven-page document Friday, returned late yesterday afternoon to underscore the latest steps taken in this picturesque town and set the stage for further negotiations.

Today is to be another "full working day" for the negotiators, but it was not immediately clear if all the committees on the most critical issues, including security and borders, would meet, as they did yesterday in what was seen as another positive sign.

The talks are likely to recess today or tomorrow, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak expected to return home today and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who is leading his country's delegation, expected to depart tomorrow, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.

The U.S.-written working document summarizes both sides' positions and is a "starting point" for a later agreement, Rubin said. He denied that the document is merely an understanding of where Israeli-Syrian talks stood in 1996, when the sides broke off contact.

"There has been discussion here in Shepherdstown that has gone beyond the past," Rubin said. The working document, he added, contains "ideas that we consider new."

In Israel, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who said he had been in touch with Barak by telephone, stated: "There has been very important progress." He told Israeli radio that the U.S. document "brings us closer to making peace within a time frame that is not long."

Syrians praised the document as insurance against what they charge has been a pattern of Israeli backsliding.

While all sides acknowledged that progress had been made, the next steps are sure to be agonizing, based on a land-for-peace formula. Israel and Syria still face "enormous decisions" and "it's a little early for dramatic bridging proposals" that would bring negotiators to agreement on inflammatory issues, Rubin said.

U.S. mediators had not offered "bridging proposals" designed to close the gap, and crucial decisions should not be expected in the next few days, he said.

Yesterday, Barak, making his first public comments on the peace talks since they began a week ago, told Israeli reporters: "There is no doubt it will be a tough diplomatic battle. It is impossible now to forecast how long it will last, or the results. But we will do everything to defend in the deliberations the security and vital interests of Israel."

Activity yesterday revolved around technical committees, with all four groups -- borders, security, water rights and political relations -- meeting simultaneously for the first time, another development portrayed by U.S. officials as progress.

A persistent source of tension here is Syria's insistence that a Golan withdrawal must be discussed before anything else, while Israel wants to nail down demilitarized zones and other security issues first.

Until yesterday, the new-borders committee, which is wrestling with the Golan issue, had not met. The security and defense committee held its first meeting Wednesday, prompting criticism from the Syrians that the Golan issue was taking a back seat.

"There is often, especially when you're dealing with countries that are in a state of war, a very high possibility that things will go off track," Rubin said. "So the fact that we're still on track, having now rolled up our sleeves and beginning to work with paper and pencil on the specific, substantive issues, means we're moving in the right direction."

The delegations got back to work yesterday after taking Saturday off for the Jewish sabbath. The Syrian delegation celebrated the end of Ramadan, a month-long holy period for Muslims.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who has supervised the talks, invited Sharaa for tea at Hillsboro, her Virginia farm across the border. Barak visited the farm yesterday for lunch, while also visiting Antietam Battlefield, a Civil War site across the Potomac in Maryland.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said, "Nothing is agreed upon yet" about a new border for the Golan, although "there has been progress and understanding."

In Jerusalem, Israel Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said Syria had refused to permit Israel to retain an early warning station on the Golan Heights once the area is relinquished.

But, Ramon said, Syria was

prepared to consider a station manned mostly by U.S. and French personnel, with a Syrian presence and a symbolic Israeli presence.

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