NEW YORK, March 26 (JTA) It does not appear that Israeli-Syrian negotiations will resume any time soon.
During a summit that lasted some four hours Sunday in Geneva, President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad failed to reach a basis for resuming the negotiations.
“The differences that remain” between Israel and Syria are “significant,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said after the summit.
The meeting has been widely viewed as the last chance to revive the negotiations during Clinton’s remaining time in office.
Lockhart characterized the summit as “very useful.” But, he said, “We don’t believe it would be productive” for Israeli-Syrian talks to resume at this point.
“Obviously more work needs to be done” to bridge the gaps between the two sides, Lockhart said.
“It is impossible to predict when those talks might resume,” he said.
Clinton spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak twice during Sunday’s talks, Lockhart said.
Clinton and Assad talked for more than two hours, took a two-hour break and then resumed their meeting, he said. During the break, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met separately with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who was part of the Syrian delegation.
The summit broke down over the question of how much of the Golan Heights Israel would return to Syria as part of a peace treaty, according to a Syrian presidential spokesman.
In a statement Sunday, the spokesman referred to “the obstacles which Israel put and is still putting in front of the resumption of talks,” adding that Assad remains firm in his demand for a “full Israeli withdrawal” to the border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
Clinton had proposed that Israel withdraw to a redrawn line close to the prewar boundary, with Syria renouncing its right to water from the Sea of Galilee, diplomatic sources told Reuters.
The United States also wanted an assurance from Assad that Syria would work to prevent attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon if negotiations were to resume, the sources said.
Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Reuters that Israel expected to retain complete control of the Sea of Galilee, the source of 40 percent of its water, in any deal with Damascus.
While Barak has made it clear he is willing to make “painful concessions” on the Golan if security arrangements and other conditions are met, Israeli leaders have repeatedly insisted they would not agree to grant the Syrians control over the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Prior to the summit, U.S. and Israeli officials downplayed expectations that it would lead to a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Those talks were suspended in January amid Syrian demands that Israel commit itself to a full withdrawal from the Golan.
Barak told his Cabinet the chances of getting the negotiations with Syria back on track were no better than 50 percent.
In the two months since the talks were suspended, reports in the Israeli media ranged from talk of unbridgeable gaps to stories about behind-the-scenes contacts in which most all of the details of a final peace Israeli-Syrian peace treaty were worked out.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are reportedly preparing for a withdrawal from southern Lebanon by July.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, contradicting last week’s media reports, said Barak has not ruled out the army’s proposal for leaving intact a number of military outposts just north of the border with Lebanon.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)