Mideast negotiators take recess from talks

Israelis, Syrians agree to reconvene Jan. 19

January 11, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Israeli-Syrian peace talks recessed yesterday much as they began -- with a lot of hope and not much visible achievement.

After a week of tense talk and four interventions by President Clinton, the good news here was that some "new ideas" came up between the Middle East's two oldest enemies and that they'll meet again in eight days.

James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, characterized the accomplishments of the past week ever cautiously:

"We feel that in explaining their positions, in discussing their concerns and articulating their objectives, there have been new ideas that have surfaced," he said. "We're in a warming trend, but I wouldn't want to overstate that."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa accepted President Clinton's invitation to reconvene Jan. 19. The delegates for the next stage will be similar to those this time, with Barak and Sharaa as principals and specialist working committees supporting them.

The site for the next round probably will be in the Washington area, U.S. officials said, possibly in Shepherdstown again.

Barak and Sharaa will go home to brief their governments on developments and to prepare for the next meetings, which the Clinton administration hopes will yield more than the preliminary "working paper" on the sides' positions that came out this round.

After a week and a day here, Israel and Syria laid "groundwork" that will help bridge the considerable gaps that remain between them," Rubin said.

The nations are far apart on such critical issues as territory, demilitarized zones, water access and the phasing-in of normal political relations.

"We believe that both sides have made a commitment to the negotiations, a commitment to achieving peace," Rubin said. "This is an issue that will be solved over time. It will not be solved overnight."

From the start, U.S. officials dampened expectations for the first week of intensive talks between Israel and Syria since the nations broke off earlier negotiations in 1996. They got what they predicted.

"We did not reach agreement," Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said on returning to Israel yesterday. "We did not even get near."

The first few days of meetings were dominated by agenda squabbles that delayed a three-way meeting between Barak, Sharaa and President Clinton.

Israel wanted to talk about security issues before discussing its withdrawal from the Golan Heights territory that it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Syria claimed Israel had agreed to Golan withdrawal in earlier talks and was now reneging.

Both sides wanted to show toughness to skeptical constituencies back home. The nations have been in a declared state of war since Israel's creation in 1948. Any sign that delegates on either side were too accommodating would be political poison back home.

"This is a very deep conflict, with two sides that have had very little contact," said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum. "This first week both sides were playing to the stands, playing to the folks back home. Now they're ready to get down to serious business."

By the end of the Shepherdstown round, which began Jan. 3, Barak and Sharaa had shared a meal, overseen the proceedings of four working committees negotiating critical issues and reviewed the U.S. working document summing up the bargaining stances.

Both Barak and Sharaa were said by U.S. officials to be "pleased" with the seven-page working paper and to have said that it reflected their positions accurately. But it did not bring their positions significantly closer, and the United States did not present any major compromise proposals.

Getting Syria and Israel even to agree on how they disagree was progress, U.S. officials said, and will serve as a base for the next step.

Though Rubin said "new ideas . have surfaced," U.S. and Israeli officials declined to disclose what they were, maintaining a veil of secrecy that has covered the talks.

With the lack of disclosure, gauging the condition of negotiations has depended on symbol and nuance almost as much as official statements.

Close attention was paid to Sharaa's clothing, for example. As the Israelis began to dress more informally toward the middle of last week, the Syrian foreign minister's persistent dark suit and tie were taken as a sign of unyielding formality. His appearance without a tie at the farm of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright over the weekend was taken as a sign of possible softening.

Rubin related an encounter between the delegations that showed an exchange of humor and a wry acknowledgment that the first week of substantive talks hadn't yielded much.

Inside the exercise center at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center here, Barak saw a Syrian diplomat on a treadmill and said to Sharaa, "She's not getting anywhere." Somebody -- it wasn't clear who -- then said, "It's the beginning of the process."

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