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Israel and Syria Take a Break As Clinton Acknowledges ‘tension’

January 11, 2000
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The latest round of Israeli-Syrian negotiations has come to an inconclusive end, with no indication that the two sides bridged any of their differences.

But in an hopeful indication of the two nations’ willingness to continue the process, the U.S. State Department announced Monday that the talks would resume Jan. 19 at an as-yet-unspecified location in the United States.

U.S. officials, who served as mediators in the talks, were careful to dispel any disappointment that no breakthroughs had been achieved.

President Clinton, who visited Shepherdstown, W.Va., five times during the weeklong round of talks there, likewise cautioned against expecting too much too soon, given the dimensions of the issues facing the negotiators.

This is a “time of great tension, where all people will have to search for wisdom and understanding,” he said before Monday’s recess in the talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa left the tranquil setting to face reactions at home.

Underscoring the political tensions in Israel, more than 100,000 Israelis opposed to any future withdrawal from the Golan Heights rallied Monday night in Tel Aviv, according to police estimates of the crowd.

During the demonstration, loudspeakers played recordings of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in the same square where the protesters gathered, stressing the strategic importance of the Golan.

In an indication of the difficulties facing Barak, who has vowed to submit any agreement reached with Damascus to a popular referendum, a member of his own Cabinet was sitting on the stage during the demonstration — Interior Minister Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky’s Russian immigrant following is expected to provide a nucleus of opposition to any Golan-for-peace deal with Syria, which is one of Syria’s key demands.

Foreign Minister David Levy, who returned to Israel on Monday from the talks, said the two sides “did not even get close” to reaching agreement regarding the Golan or any of the other issues facing them.

He said the Syrian delegation was holding firm to its demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan to the border that existed on the eve of the 1967 Six- Day War, a move that would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

“This is unacceptable to us,” Levy said.

When the talks began Jan. 3, the two sides were unable to agree on which issues to tackle first.

The Syrians had wanted to discuss the return of the Golan, while Israel first wanted to focus on security issues and the normalization of ties between the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war.

As a result of American mediation, Israel’s position prevailed. The two sides also created working committees to deal with the four broad issues confronting them: borders, water, normalization and security.

When the committees failed to make progress, Clinton last Friday presented Barak and Sharaa with a “working paper” that set forth an agenda and a focus for future discussions.

Clinton’s repeated interventions over the past week, while helping to keep the negotiations from faltering, drew fire from right-wing politicians in Israel, who accused Clinton of trying to force Barak to make concessions to the Syrians.

The Shepherdstown talks were the second set of face-to-face meetings involving Barak and Sharaa.

Last December, Clinton hosted the two at the White House, ending a nearly four- year suspension of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

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