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Mainstream Jewish Leaders Confer with the Syrian Foreign Minister

In what could be seen as yet another attempt to jump start the stalled Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa met with American Jewish leaders on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

In a session that began with members of Congress, and was later joined by Jewish leaders, participants questioned the minister on the peace process, the Arab boycott of Israel, terrorism and Syrian narcotics trafficking, according to Capitol Hill sources involved with the meeting.

The meeting left open the possibility that a delegation of congressional staffers would travel to Syria to investigate the whereabouts of Israeli MIAs, the sources said.

Sharaa, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week, was scheduled to meet with President Bill Clinton on Friday and also with high level officials at the State Department.

Jewish leaders who attended the 45-minute session refused to comment immediately following the session, saying they preferred to wait until a coordinated response could be agreed upon.

This is not the first time Jewish activists met with a top Syrian official, but it is believed to be the first time that such a broad spectrum of mainstream Jewish leaders conferred with a leader from Damascus.

Earlier this year, delegations from Project Nishma and Americans for Peace Now met Syrian officials in Damascus. In addition, former leaders of American Jewish Congress met with Syrian President Hafez Assad in August.

MEETINGS COME ON EVE OF NEW MIDEAST SHUTTLE

The meetings on Capitol Hill occurred just three days before Secretary of State Warren Christopher is scheduled to return to the Middle East for another round of shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Israel and Syria have been deadlocked in negotiations for months. Syria is demanding a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, as Sharaa reiterated in his U.N. speech on Monday.

The Israeli government has indicated some withdrawal from the Golan is possible, but only in stages and only in return for a full peace with Syria.

The Sharaa meeting was arranged by the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.).

Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.) also attended the session.

Jewish groups represented at the meeting were the Anti-Defamation League, American for Peace Now, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah.

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