WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (JTA) — Although Israel and Syria sat down this week for their highest level of peace talks ever, the two sides were not ready for a handshake.
Gathered at a White House ceremony to launch their historic talks Wednesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa resisted calls from reporters to link hands for the cameras.
The resistance showed that despite their stated intentions to end 50 years of war and enmity, there is still a long way to go.
Further evidence of this came during Sharaa’s remarks at the opening ceremony, where, among other things, he attacked Israel’s “occupation” of the Golan Heights.
A day later, when Barak and Sharaa met for their second and last day of talks, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy described the Syrian minister’s opening remarks as “inappropriate,” adding that they had angered both Clinton and Barak.
Just the same, Levy noted that the atmosphere “thawed” during the meeting Barak and Sharaa held later Wednesday.
Despite a media blackout on the content of the discussions, Levy shed some light on what was happening at the Washington talks.
Levy said Sharaa understood that he had “made a mistake” with some of his opening remarks.
Levy added that the Israeli representatives at the talks had made clear that no preconditions regarding an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan were agreed upon to enable the resumption of negotiations.
Israeli sources were quoted as saying that both sides agreed to the need to conclude an accord quickly during the course of the coming year.
The sources also said that during the talks, Syrian representatives spoke in a cordial and positive tone.
Levy said the two sides were trying to agree on confidence-building gestures to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations.
He speculated that the next round of follow-up talks would be held in early January.
On Thursday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported significant differences in Barak and Sharaa’s positions.
Syria reportedly would like to first address the issue of an withdrawal from the Golan. Israel is seeking to emphasize security arrangements.
Israel was also expected to seek a Syrian commitment to rein in Hezbollah activities in Lebanon during the course of the discussions.
The importance of such a move became clear Thursday in southern Lebanon, the site of recent increased Hezbollah activity against Israeli forces, despite the start of the Israeli-Syrian talks.
During fighting that day, at least 15 Lebanese schoolchildren were wounded by shells fired from the southern Lebanon security zone.
Israel later issued a statement that its ally in the region, the South Lebanon Army, had fired the shells in retaliation for Hezbollah fire that came from a position near the school.
Despite the long years of Israeli-Syrian enmity, the mood was optimistic at Wednesday’s opening ceremonies.
Against a backdrop of the American, Israeli and Syrian flags and under an overcast sky, President Clinton said a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world was in sight “for the first time in history.”
“What we are witnessing today is not yet peace,” Clinton said of the two days of talks between the longtime foes. “And getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path.”
Barak, during very brief remarks, said Israel is “determined to do whatever we can” to bring about a better future for the entire Middle East.
“We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace,” Barak said.
“We are fully aware of the opportunity, of the burden of responsibility and of the seriousness, determination and devotion that will be needed in order begin this march together with our Syrian partners to make a different Middle East where nations are living side by side in peaceful relationships and mutual respect and good neighborliness.”
Sharaa, who delivered a more combative and longer speech, clearly used the occasion to underscore Syria’s positions before the two days of talks began, stressing that “no one should ignore what has been achieved until now.”
That comment was a reference to Syria’s position that the government of Yitzhak Rabin agreed during the last round of talks nearly four years ago to withdraw from the entire Golan.
Israel has maintained that the offer was hypothetical to see what level of normalization and security arrangements Syrian President Hafez Assad would offer in return.
However, in laying out Syria’s demands, Sharaa also acknowledged the needs of the Israelis.
“It goes without saying that peace for Syria means the return of all its occupied land, while for Israel, peace will mean the end of the psychological fear which the Israelis have been living in as a result of the existence of occupation, which is undoubtedly the source of all adversities and wars,” Sharaa said.
“Hence, ending occupation will be balanced for the first time by eliminating the barrier of fear and anxieties, and exchanging it with a true and mutual feeling of peace and security.”
Saying that Assad announced many years ago that “peace is the strategic option of Syria,” Sharaa suggested that Syria was looking to open itself up to the world. Peace in the region, he said, “may usher in a dialogue of civilization and an honorable competition in various domains — the political, cultural, scientific and economic.”
Sharaa also said that “peace will certainly pose new questions to all sides, especially for the Arab side, who will wonder after reviewing the past 50 years, whether the Arab conflict was the one who solely defied Arab unity or the one which frustrated it.”
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)