U.S. downplays Clinton-Assad meeting


JERUSALEM, March 21 (JTA) — President Clinton’s planned meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Sunday is heightening expectations that Israeli-Syrian talks will soon resume and proceed to a quick agreement.

Israeli newspapers reported Tuesday that most of the details of a final peace agreement were negotiated in behind-the-scenes meetings that have taken place since the public negotiations were suspended in January.

They added that Sunday’s meeting in Geneva could help put all those details into place.

A British author who is a close confidant of Assad reached a similar conclusion Tuesday.

Writing in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat, Patrick Seale said the meeting signals the end game of a process that started at the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Clinton, he wrote, is expected to convey to Assad specific assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak regarding a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

In exchange, Assad will provide Clinton with equally specific assurances concerning water, security and normalization of ties — all of which Barak needs in order to sell an agreement to a skeptical Israeli public.

If all goes well at Geneva, wrote Seale, peace talks could resume in Washington within days and an Israeli-Syrian agreement, as well as an Israeli- Lebanese agreement, could be reached within two months, in time for Barak to put them to a referendum at the end of May.

Seale described the coming weeks as “the most important in the modern history of the Middle East.”

“They will decide the future of war or peace in the region.”

The reports came despite attempts by U.S. officials, including Clinton himself, to downplay the planned meeting.

“I don’t want to unduly raise expectations, but I think that this is an appropriate thing for me to do” in order to get the Israeli-Syrian talks “back on track,” Clinton said during a news conference Monday in Bangladesh.

Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, echoed this sentiment, telling reporters, “I don’t expect an instant result from this meeting.

“You can’t move this thing forward without a face-to-face meeting with Assad,” said Berger.

Asked about reports that Assad is ill, Berger said, “He’s been engaged in all of this, calling the shots.”

Berger also said Clinton plans to present his views to Assad “on how to get the process resumed,” but he maintained that the president is “not taking a specific American proposal” to Geneva.

The meeting is scheduled to take place on Clinton’s way home from a six-day tour of South Asia.

Israel gave a cautious welcome to word of the meeting.

“We hope that the meeting will lead to a renewal of the negotiations,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office said, but added that “such talks will take place only if the appropriate conditions are created.”

Israeli-Syrian talks broke off in January amid Syrian demands that Israel commit itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Damascus.

Israeli officials refused such assurances and first sought to address the issues of security and normalization, saying these discussions would help determine the scope of the withdrawal.

Israeli media reports have said in recent weeks that Barak might be willing to concede most of the Golan — close to, but not including, the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Since the Israeli-Syrian talks broke off, Israel has denied any direct contacts with Damascus and said it had no information when the discussions might resume.

(JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.)

Recommended from JTA