WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration played down the suspension of Israeli-Syrian peace talks yesterday even as it scrambled to hoist them back on track, with President Clinton personally speaking to Syrian leader Hafez el Assad.
Clinton conferred with Assad for about an hour yesterday, a day after talks were suspended over Syria's demand to discuss new Israeli borders immediately instead of negotiating them along with other issues. The talks had been set to resume today.
Clinton's conversation with Assad was "a useful discussion" and "a good chance to review the issues," said presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart. "They discussed where we are in the process and how we move forward from here."
He refused to say if Clinton had asked Assad to be more flexible in discussing an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Both the White House and the State Department took pains to portray the newest snag, which came after a secret draft peace agreement was leaked to an Israeli newspaper, as disappointing but not permanent.
"We have always known [negotiating] is a difficult process involving complicated issues, and no one expected this to run like clockwork or to be without fits and starts," Lockhart said.
One senior administration official contended that the United States could easily have brought Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak back to the table but chose to wait for a better chance of progress.
"We're in a poker game," said the official. "The cards have been dealt. Everyone's looking at their cards and they're trying to decide how to play them. But we don't want these guys to come back until they're ready to play the game."
But at the same time, the White House is anxious not to let momentum slip away. To keep the process simmering, even if on a back burner, lower-level negotiators from both sides are due in Washington in the next few days to discuss what are described as technical issues.
One way to break the impasse, diplomatic experts said, might be for Clinton to move negotiations to a secret venue, without the daily media glare. Another possibility: appoint a new U.S. negotiator, a former secretary of state or another respected official, to assist Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross.
A Clinton-Assad summit or a meeting between Assad and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright also might be under consideration, analysts said.
In a speech yesterday morning, Albright said that both Israel and Syria "genuinely desire peace."
She added: "Understandably, both want to be sure their needs will be addressed first. Our challenge is to work with both sides and find ways to narrow their differences to the point where all needs get resolved simultaneously."
Trying to address needs simultaneously is the recurring theme of the talks, which restarted in December after a lapse of nearly four years.
Most foreign policy analysts assume that Israel eventually will give up most of the Golan, which it occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, in return for diplomatic recognition and security assurances. But Syria wants to settle a Golan withdrawal first and security for Israel later; Israel wants to reverse the order.
The first round of negotiations, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., this month, resulted in a draft "working paper" that is supposed to undergird negotiations.
U.S. officials hoped that this week's second round would produce progress on the key issues of water, borders and security. But publication of the secret, Shepherdstown working paper has embarrassed Syria and put Assad on the defensive, Middle East analysts said.
The paper, published in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, seems to show that Assad has made more concessions than Barak.
"The leak of that working paper was devastating," said Steven Spiegel, a Mideast specialist at UCLA. "It makes Syria look soft and Barak look tougher than he appears. Assad is justifiably sore. He's got to do something to regain his machismo."
Syria apparently has agreed to implement full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel and to allow third parties on a Syrian-controlled Golan. Offering full relations is "an important step forward by Syria," Robert Satloff and Patrick Clawson wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The sides are still sharply at odds over new Golan Heights borders and the size and placement of demilitarized zones after Israeli withdrawal.
"The Israeli side has continued to depend on the policy of prevarication and procrastination by avoiding basic issues and concentrating on secondary ones," the government-controlled Al Ba'th Syrian daily said Monday.
In addition to Clinton's call to Assad yesterday, Albright spoke with Sharaa Monday. Clinton may speak to Barak later this week, officials said.
Clinton is to meet tomorrow with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. As Barak tries to negotiate with the Syrians, he also is attempting to reach a peace agreement with Arafat. A deadline for a rough, "framework" agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is less than a month away.
While there is no clear link between the Syrian and Palestinian peace tracks, both Arafat and Assad are said to be wary of continuing frosty relations with Israel if one or the other is seen to be moving toward peace.