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The ups and downs of peace talks

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 (JTA) — Predictions that peace talks between Israel and Syria would be difficult appeared to be on the mark as officials got down to business this week.

As the talks resumed Monday in Shepherdstown, W.Va., the United States was already playing down expectations that the new round of talks would lead to an agreement.

“I think it’s fair to say that Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Great Expectations’ is not the novel that is being read by the negotiators and the working-level officials,” State Department spokesman James Rubin said on Monday, shortly after the talks began.

“We do not expect to be able to achieve a core agreement in one round of negotiations,” he said of the talks, which have been billed as intensive and open-ended.

Israeli and Syrian negotiators, who were expected to get down to the nitty-gritty negotiations that could pave they way for a peace deal that would end their 50-year state of war, had trouble agreeing on where to start the talks.

Israel wanted to discuss normalizing relations and security arrangements first while Syria wanted to begin with discussions on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The two sides are also expected to discuss water rights.

Their differences led to the cancellation Monday evening of an expected three-way meeting between President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

By Tuesday afternoon, however, Rubin said that Dickens’ “Bleak House” also was not an appropriate novel. He announced that the “procedural hurdle” had been overcome and that “all of the issues will be discussed in the coming few days.”

He did not say what the hurdle was, but said committees had been formed to deal with the key topics.

This agreement paved the way for Barak and Sharaa to meet Tuesday for their first substantive encounter since resuming their peace talks in West Virginia. The meeting was conducted in the presence of Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Rubin described the meeting as “a very constructive and productive discussion that put the process clearly on track.”

After the meeting, Clinton hosted a reception for Barak, Sharaa and other members of the Israeli and Syrian negotiating teams in the hotel where officials from all three sides are staying.

Rubin said U.S. officials were not surprised by the initial stumbling block.

“We always expect there to be problems in this kind of a negotiation, and that’s why we’re here to overcome them,” he said.

For his part, Clinton described both sides in the talks as “very serious.”

“I think they both want an agreement,” he said in the Oval Office on Tuesday, taking questions after nominating Alan Greenspan to another term as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Asked about reports that Israeli is seeking at least $17 billion in aid to cover the security costs of a peace treaty with Syria, Clinton said the United States is “attempting to ascertain what the general outlines of the costs would be.”

The Israel daily Ha’aretz reported on Monday, without citing sources, that Barak has already asked the United States for $17 billion in aid. The request includes funding for new Apache helicopters, a ground station for gathering information from U.S. satellites and Tomahawk cruise missiles, which would give Israel the ability to strike distant countries. The aid request includes funding to help transfer army camps from the Golan to inside the Green Line, the paper reported.

Rubin called the reports “wildly premature.”

But the president, who flew back to Shepherdstown on Tuesday, acknowledged that there will be costs associated with an Israeli-Syrian peace deal.

“As I have made clear, we need to make a contribution, as do our friends in Europe and hopefully some in Asia, toward the long-term economic development of a regional Middle East economy,” he said.

“So there will be some costs involved there over a period of years, not just in one year. We are trying to determine exactly what that should be.”

Clinton said he would have to have a “serious consultation with the congressional leadership, before I can do more than say I would support this.”

Republican leaders in Congress were upset that Clinton promised Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan $1.9 billion during the 1998 Wye talks without consulting with them.

Pro-Israel activists have said that it is crucial for the Clinton administration to work closely with Congress on any potential aid package, given the battle over the Wye aid seen during the budget battle this past fall.

Those who oppose an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and do not want U.S. aid to secure a deal between Israel and Syria demonstrated in West Virginia, near the site where the Israeli-Syrian talks are being held. The Associated Press reported that about 120 people, including members of the Lubavitch Chasidic movement, members of Americans for a Safe Israel and children from a Hebrew school in Silver Spring, Md., joined Tuesday’s protest.

Helen Freedman, AFSI’s executive director, said in an interview with JTA that members of her group will begin lobbying members of Congress in early February to oppose U.S. aid to Israel and Syria.

Freedman suggested that the potential price tag could reach $100 billion and that by accepting such sums would turn Israel into a “protectorate” of the United States.

The talks this week were being held in a virtual media blackout. Only the White House and State Department spokesman are expected to hold daily briefings, but they are not expected to provide any real details of the negotiations.

Rubin said that members of the Israeli and the Syrians delegations even agreed to surrender their cell phones so they would not be bothered by pesky reporters seeking details.

“We’re here to make a peace agreement, not to make a headline,” Rubin said. “And if that means that news is scarce and cell phones are turned off or they don’t exist, that’s a small price to pay for the outcome, at which time there will be plenty of time for the leaders of Syria and Israel and the United States to explain what the agreement is, what its impact will be.”

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