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Great Expectations’ not being read by negotiators

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (JTA) — As peace talks resumed this week between Israel and Syria 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.”

During the open-ended talks, which are expected to last at least a week, Israeli and Syrian negotiators will discuss security arrangements, the normalization of relations, water rights and the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

“These are big, big issues,” Rubin said. “And it’s our view that progress can be made and we hope progress will be made, but we have no reason to assume or expect that a core agreement can be achieved in a short number of days.”

President Clinton kicked off the talks with a photo-op stroll with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

The three leaders walked across a bridge in the woods of the National Conservation Training Center, which sits on 540 acres primarily used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The leaders did not make any comments before getting down to work. The president and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held individual meeting with both of the leaders. Clinton also was expected to hold a three-way meeting with Barak and Sharaa.

The talks 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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