Three-way Mideast talks cancelled; meetings resume Tuesday
January 3, 2000
From staff and wire reports
SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia (CNN) -- A three-way meeting among U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was abruptly cancelled Monday night, capping the first day of a weeklong round of Middle East peace talks.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said no progress had been made in separate meetings with Clinton. But earlier, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart -- quoting Clinton -- said the talks had gotten "off to a good start."
The meetings were the first in round two of renewed peace talks between Syria and Israel, which began last month.
Foremost among the topics is the Golan Heights. Syria has demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.
Heading into the talks, Syrian officials were said to have "open minds and a truthful desire" for peace. Barak said he felt the "burden of responsibility" to reach an agreement this year.
'Historic opportunity' to reach peace agreement
The talks are taking place at a retreat center just outside Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a small town on the Potomac River some 70 miles (112 km) northwest of Washington.
Clinton has made Mideast peace a top international policy goal for 2000. "The president understands we have a historic opportunity here," Lockhart said. "The president believes we can act as a facilitator, as an honest broker, as we have in the past."
The Syrian delegation was described as willing to stay as long as necessary to reach an agreement, provided there was a several-day break at the end of Ramadan on January 8 or 9.
But a spokesman for the U.S. State Department cautioned that further talks could be necessary. "We do not expect to be able to achieve a core agreement in one round of negotiations," Rubin told reporters.
Strategic Golan Heights is key issue
Differences over a Golan withdrawal and related issues "are significant and complex and will involve a lot of hard work and hard decisions," Lockhart said.
"There's the fundamental issues of withdrawal, security arrangements, the nature and timing of peace, and water (that) need to be resolved," he said.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, however, expressed optimism about the eventual outcome of talks. "We can reach an agreement with the Syrians," Peres told CNN on Monday. "The differences are not as wide as one may think."
The first round of negotiations in Washington three weeks ago was the highest level of talks ever between the two countries, which have fought three wars in five decades.
In Syria, the news media, which reflect government thinking, said Damascus pins great hopes on the upcoming negotiations. Al-Thawra newspaper said Syrians head into the talks with "open minds and a truthful desire to bring about a just and comprehensive peace."
Barak has implied, but not explicitly stated, his willingness to hand over almost all of the Golan and to dismantle Israeli settlements there in exchange for security and diplomatic normalization with Syria.
Barak must find Syrian concessions that will make the return of the Golan palatable to Israelis, or change Syria's determination that there can be no compromise on the issue.
Syria seems unwilling to budge on at least one point. The country is seeking "an Israeli acknowledgment of its commitment to withdraw to the 1967 border of the Golan Heights," a Syrian official told CNN on Monday.
Israel's withdrawal from the Golan is "the core and the cause of the problem between Syria and Israel and so it has to be sorted out first," the source said.
Earlier talks sketched out demilitarized zones
Syria contends that the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed during lower-level peace talks that stalled in 1996 to return the Golan, a water-rich region that overlooks the upper Jordan River valley.
In those discussions, Syrian and Israeli military leaders sketched out demilitarized zones on either side of a still-undetermined border.
Israel has expressed a willingness to return to the 1923 borders between Syria and what was then Palestine. The older borders grant Israel several square miles of territory it says Syria encroached upon between that date and 1967. Israel was created in 1948.
Support for Barak's position is shaky within his coalition government -- some of his ministers oppose returning any of the Golan to Syria.
Barak likely will talk about the other issues before addressing the return of the territory. He has vowed he would sign no agreement unless it would strengthen Israel's security and bring it greater prosperity. He has also promised to bring any peace agreement to a vote in a national referendum.
Albright: 'No done deal' as Israel, Syria prepare to meet
Knesset - The Israeli Parliament
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