Syrians, Israelis are no-shows to U.S. talks

JERUSALEM, Jan. 25 (JTA) — U.S. officials have invited experts from Israel and Syria to come to Washington, but neither side is willing to show up.

Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria, Uri Saguy, and Defense Ministry adviser Moshe Kochanovsky were supposed to depart for Washington on Tuesday, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak postponed their trip at the last minute.

The decision came after Syrian delegates failed to show up for a separate round of talks with U.S. officials.

The Syrian team was due in Washington at the beginning of the week to present Damascus’ view of a U.S. proposal that American officials hope can serve as the basis for a future peace accord.

A statement issued by Barak’s office said the decision not to send the two Israeli officials came following consultations with the Clinton administration.

“A new date for the trip has yet to be set,” the statement added.

U.S. officials had planned to hold the separate meetings with experts from the two sides to keep momentum going in the Israeli-Syrian peace process after Syria suspended higher-level talks that were supposed to have been held last week.

Syria called off those talks in anger over Israel’s refusal to address what Damascus sees as the key issue — the final border. Syria seeks a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the border that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel has sought to first discuss security arrangements, water rights and normalization of relations, saying that the final borders can be drawn only after those other issues are resolved.

Despite the latest setback, the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, remains optimistic that the two sides will be able to conclude a peace accord before the end of the year.

“There are ups and downs in any process,” Indyk said. “Syrian-Israeli negotiations are no different from any other track in that regard.

“But we remain hopeful that because we believe that both sides are committed to achieving a comprehensive peace this year, that it will be possible.”

Indyk was sworn in last Friday as the U.S. envoy to Israel. He was ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997, serving since then as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Though Israeli-Syrian talks are now suspended, Indyk said the Americans remain in touch with both sides and expect to hear responses from them on U.S. proposals.

Meanwhile, with the Syrian talks on hold, officials in Barak’s office said the prime minister had instructed Israeli negotiators to accelerate talks on a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

The sides face a mid-February deadline for concluding a framework for a final agreement. This week, Israel’s chief negotiator, Oded Eran, expressed doubts that the deadline would be met. But he remained optimistic that the two sides would reach a full agreement by a September deadline.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said he would declare a Palestinian state before the year ends.

“It is a fundamental thing that this year is the year of the state,” he told reporters in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.

Statehood will be “one of the main issues” when the PLO’s policy-making Central Council meets next week, Arafat added.

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