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Israel/Syria: Future Talks Augur A Tough Journey For Peace

The talks in Washington were intensive and held behind a wall of secrecy. And when they were over, both Israel and Syria agreed to return to the peace table next month to try and negotiate a settlement between their countries. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 17 December 1999 (RFE/RF) -- Israel and Syria have agreed to return to Washington next month to work toward a comprehensive settlement aimed at ending a half-century of conflict and bloodshed. U.S. President Bill Clinton says the journey for peace will be tough.

The agreement to resume peace negotiations was announced Thursday by Clinton outside the White House. The announcement came following two days of intense talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Shara. Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright both took part in the talks.

Neither Barak nor Shara spoke at the Clinton announcement appearance, and there was no immediate word of the substance of their discussions, or whether they met one-on-one without U.S. mediation during the meetings. "In the course of their meetings with Secretary Albright and with me, Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara agreed to make every effort to reach peace between Israel and Syria as part of a just, lasting and comprehensive Middle East peace, based on United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, and the Madrid Terms of Reference."

Clinton was referring to the UN formula for trading Israeli-occupied territory in exchange for a secure peace, and to the 1991 Madrid peace conference that outlined a road map for a Middle East settlement. Israel and Syria have been adversaries since 1948. During the 1967 war, Israel captured the strategic Golan Heights from Syria, which Damascus wants returned.

The first two days of talks were aimed at setting up the framework for detailed negotiations that will follow on these key issues - an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, security arrangements to guard against any surprise attacks, the time and the pace of moving toward a formal peace treaty and the establishment of economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Israeli officials hope that Lebanon will be able to join the talks with Israel and work out the details of an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Such an accord would prevent Hezbollah attacks on Israeli towns in the northern part of the country. Syria is seen as having a tremendous influence over Lebanon.

The next round of Israeli-Syrian talks are expected to be held in the Virginia countryside near Washington.

"The prime minister and the foreign minister agreed to return to Washington to continue their negotiations on an intensive basis beginning January 3rd, 2000, about two weeks from now. They have requested the United States to participate in these negotiations, and we are honored to do so. They agreed to take steps to ensure that these negotiations will be conducted in a productive and positive atmosphere."

Clinton said no one should have any illusions that the talks will be easy.

" As I emphasized from the outset, the journey will be tough. Nothing in the past 48 hours should lead us to believe otherwise. But the parties are embarked on this path. They have agreed there should be no looking back, for the sake of our generations and generations yet to come."

Just before the talks got under way, Barak said his government was serious in making peace with Syria.

"We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward towards peace. We are fully aware of the opportunity, of the burden or responsibility, and of the seriousness of the determination and devotion that will be needed in order to begin this march, together with our Syrian partners, to make a different Middle East, where nations are living side-by-side, in peaceful relationship, and in mutual respect and good neighborliness."

Shara expressed criticism of Israel for displacing Syrian residents from the Golan Heights and settling Israelis there. But the Syrian foreign minister also injected a note of optimism into his remarks.

"We are approaching the moment of truth ... and there is no doubt that everyone realizes that a peace agreement between Syria and Israel and between Lebanon and Israel will indeed mean for our region the end of a history of war and conflicts and may well usher in a dialogue of civilization and honorable competition in various domains: the political, cultural, scientific, and economic."

Middle East experts say the time is right for reconciliation between Israel and Syria. They point to a Syrian need to get western investment so its economy can be revitalized and to Israeli desires to be recognized and live without the fear of a new war.