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News Analysis: when Talks with Syria Went Sour, Barak Moved Seamlessly to Arafat

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak did not waste any time bemoaning Syria’s decision to postpone indefinitely the next round of peace talks.

Instead, within hours of formally acknowledging the postponement, Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy met Monday with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his top deputies for a four-hour working session that lasted deep into the night.

Little of substance was divulged from this meeting, beyond the information that it had been held in a cordial atmosphere and that, in the words of an Israeli source, the spirit of mutual confidence between the two leaders had been enhanced.

The immediate interpretation put on the Barak-Arafat meeting by Israeli and Arab commentators was that Barak was “playing off” the Palestinians against the Syrians.

Arafat has in recent weeks called on Israel not to forget the Palestinian track as Barak renews negotiations with Syria — and Arafat was expected to reiterate the theme at a meeting later this week in Washington with President Clinton.

Barak has already lost some of his credit with Arafat after announcing earlier this week that Israel would postpone a redeployment from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank, a move originally slated to take place this week.

Lending credence to the playing-off theory is the fact that after Syria delivered Barak an ultimatum — either commit in advance to a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights or Syria will not turn up for the round of high-level talks originally slated for this week — Barak instantly tried to outflank Syria.

Beaming with confidence and good cheer, he told reporters Monday night that Syria should “take all the time it needs” before returning to the conference table.

By next morning, his aides were reporting a long and pleasant meeting with the Palestinians.

Barak himself has consistently denied any desire or intention to play off the Palestinian and Syrian negotiating tracks against each other.

On the contrary, Barak claims, he is trying to meet all the deadlines he set for himself at the start of his tenure: a framework agreement with the Palestinians by mid-February; a withdrawal from southern Lebanon by July; a full peace agreement with Syria in the summer; and a peace agreement with the Palestinians by September.

As the end of January looms, the mid-February date seems unattainable.

Indeed, most Israeli observers assume that Barak and Arafat spent at least part of their long nocturnal meeting discussing elegant ways of extending this deadline without allowing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to lose momentum.

But Barak’s team insists that, despite minor juggling with the calendar, the broad strategy is still on target.

They also maintain that the Syrian postponement is no more than a tactical delay. The talks, they predict confidently, will resume very soon.

They point to the fact that Syria, as well as Israel, agreed to send lower- level experts to Washington in the coming days in an effort to keep the peace process moving forward.

Barak’s aides also point to the draft of an evolving peace treaty between Israel and Syria, leaked in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz last week, as evidence of the solid progress that has been made.

The draft, while registering divergent Israeli and Syrian positions on several key unresolved issues, represents a great deal of progress that had not been reflected in the public sparring between Jerusalem and Damascus, or indeed by the personal coldness radiated by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa during the first two rounds of the talks.

At the same time, though, the leaking of the draft may have led to the Syrian postponement. While the draft showed that Israel had gained several important concessions during the negotiations, including a Syrian willingness to create full diplomatic relations and open their borders to trade, it did not indicate that Syria had won in return any concessions — particularly an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan.

According to several reports, the leaking of the report embarrassed and irritated the Syrians, and prompted their latest demand that Israeli commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan as a precondition for resuming the Barak- Sharaa negotiations.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the leak “unhelpful,” but declined to say who might be responsible for it.

Meanwhile, Barak’s aides are claiming that any difficulties that erupt with the Palestinians will not ultimately provoke a crisis, but rather will spur both sides to keep the peace process on track.

Arafat may grumble, they say, but he will eventually swallow the delay in the West Bank withdrawal slated for this week and will then instruct his negotiators to redouble efforts to reach the framework agreement — if not by the mid-February deadline, then a few weeks later.

While they echo the premier’s denial of a playing-off strategy, they also state that the very fact of two parallel negotiating tracks has a beneficial effect on all concerned.

After all, they note, it is human nature not to want to get left behind.

This is the still-optimistic interpretation of events put out by the Barak spin doctors.

Some analysts, less trusting that Barak will be able to have things go his way every time, warn that this week’s postponement by the Syrians may turn out to be less temporary than the Israelis and Americans predict.

Suspensions that last several years start, after all, with postponements.

Granted, it was encouraging to learn from Washington that contacts are under way with Damascus to fix another date for resuming high-level talks.

But until the negotiators are holed up in rural Shepherdstown or some other picturesque American village, there is cause for concern.

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