Time out in Shepherdstown

Negotiations: Israel and Syria stick to opening positions, take stock and stay in touch for next round.

January 11, 2000

PEACE did not break out between Israel and Syria in the foothills of Appalachia in the past week.

The meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Barak with Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and their technical advisers in Shepherdstown, W. Va., made progress. That is, it did not break down.

Shepherdstown unavoidably took the Camp David peace talks between Israel and Egypt in 1978 as its frame of reference. Both involved trading land for security. But Shepherdstown is not Camp David.

That was the culmination of a carefully prepared process. This is the start of a long-delayed one.

The good news is that the parties at Shepherdstown were not grandstanding. They took each other's measure and will meet again in just nine days.

Israel's talks with Syria run parallel to those with the Palestinian Authority. Its relations with the Arab world turn on its relationship with the Palestinians.

The belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminent brought President Hafez el Assad to the table. The sudden stall in those talks, which just occurred, makes the Israel-Syria accord less urgent for Damascus. When that difficulty is overcome, President Assad will feel renewed pressure to settle. If it is not, he is more likely to hold out.

President Clinton played a positive role as facilitator at Shepherdstown. The United States is not likely, however, to impose a compromise. When Israel and Syria are close to accord, Washington will become a party to the talks because Syria wants to improve its standing with Washington as part of any deal. While peace is not assured, after Shepherdstown, it is , perhaps, a little nearer.

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