Israeli-Syrian first contact cordial and rocky

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (JTA) — After two days of initial talks, Israel and Syria have agreed to meet again early next year in the United States to continue negotiations aimed at ending their more than 50-year-old state of war.

In a brief statement outside the White House, President Clinton, who was flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, said the two leaders would return to Washington to resume the talks on Jan. 3 on an “intensive basis.”

There were unconfirmed reports that the talks would be held in a secluded retreat in the Virginia countryside.

“Over the past 48 hours, Israel and Syria have taken critical steps in the journey toward peace,” Clinton said. “That journey will be a difficult one. But with courage and perseverance on both sides, the result will be deeply rewarding to the people of Israel and to the people of Syria.”

The president said Barak and Sharaa “agreed to make every effort to reach peace between Israel and Syria as part of a just, lasting and comprehensive Middle East peace, based on United Nations resolutions 242 and 338 ” and the terms of the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

Syria sees the resolutions as calling for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the borders of June 4, 1967, which marks the line that separated the Israeli and Syria armies in the Jordan Valley before the Six-Day War began.

While Israel has long maintained that it would not return to that line, saying it would allow Syria to sit on the Sea of Galilee, Israeli officials during past negotiations with Syria have discussed withdrawing to the 1923 international boundary that separated Syria and Palestine, which sits just east of the 1967 line.

In addition to the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the two sides also will discuss the nature of security arrangements, the normalization of relations and water resources.

Appearing to address the stir caused by Sharaa’s combative speech Wednesday at a Rose Garden ceremony kicking off the talks, Clinton said the two sides “have agreed there should be no looking back, for the sake of our generations and generations yet to come.” He also said they “agreed to take steps to ensure that these negotiations will be conducted in a productive and positive atmosphere.”

Sharaa blamed Israel for the starting the 1967 Six-Day War and said Arab suffering had been ignored over the years.

While Israeli officials were taken aback by some of Sharaa’s speech, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy separately noted to the media that the atmosphere “thawed” during the meeting Barak and Sharaa held later Wednesday. Sharaa was quoted as making similar comments at the end of talks on Thursday.

Despite a media blackout on the content of the discussions, Levy shed some light on what was happening at the Washington talks.

He said 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.

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 a 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.

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