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Israel/Syria: Peace Talks Signal Start Of A New Beginning

Israel and Syria have been in an official state of war for 50 years. They have also been engaged in peace talks for at least a decade. But the profound differences between the two ancient enemies have kept these negotiations dormant. Enter the persuasive and persistent Bill Clinton, who began his presidency without any foreign-policy credentials, and has since prided himself as a peacemaker from the Middle East to Ireland. Yet as RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports, even Clinton's presence cannot ensure a smooth beginning for the latest round of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Washington, 5 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes even a beginning needs a beginning. This certainly was true Tuesday in Shepherdstown, the bucolic site of the Israel-Syria peace talks about 75 miles west of Washington.

The talks began Monday with some fanfare, given the importance of the peace negotiations between two nations that have been in a state of war for the past half-century.

U.S. President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, greeted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa. The president and the two visiting dignitaries even strolled across a photogenic bridge as if to dramatize the unity of their purpose.

Then the talks began, and immediately reached a hurdle that prevented further discussion. In fact, Clinton had planned to hold a negotiating session with Barak and Sharaa on Monday evening. That meeting was canceled.

In Washington, before he went to Shepherdstown for a repeat visit on Tuesday, Clinton was asked how he felt that the trilateral session with Barak and Sharaa could not be held. The president, in his usual optimistic manner, seemed to shrug off the problem.

"No. No. That was partly my decision. We just had a lot of other work to do. And I am going back today. And I think they are both very serious. I think they both want an agreement. I think there are difficult issues, and we'll just have to hope that we work it out."

News accounts said the dispute focused on the order of the talks. They said Barak was accusing Sharaa of demanding that the first order of business be Israel's return of the Golan Heights, a strategic highland that Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War. These reports said Syria had previously agreed to discuss security issues first.

State Department spokesman James Rubin on Tuesday pointedly urged reporters to disregard these accounts, but would not say what the problem was.

In any event, Rubin said, the problem was resolved Tuesday, and all the issues would be handled by independent committees working in parallel.

"We have been able today to constitute all the relevant committees, and we believe that all the issues will be discussed over the next couple of days in a variety of ways between Syrian officials, Israeli officials and American officials. So in short, the procedural hurdle that emerged yesterday [Jan. 3] has been overcome and we are proceeding apace."

But the problem -- whatever its nature -- could not be solved without Clinton and Albright spending hours with Sharaa Monday night and Tuesday morning.

And Rubin was quick to stress that no one should expect a quick settlement, even an agreement in principle. The negotiations have been going on for years. They broke off in 1996, but resumed, officially at least, last month in Washington. This week, the two sides were supposed to get down to substantive issues.

The agenda always has been open: Israel returning the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria's security guarantees and other arrangements like demilitarized zones and early-warning sites. The two nations also would resume full diplomatic relations, and share water resources.

But as Rubin pointed out on Monday, it is the details of each of these elements that has kept the two sides from making progress over the years. He said the problem that interrupted the talks on Monday was trivial compared with issues themselves. And for them, a mediator of Clinton's stature will be necessary.

"Resolving a procedural hurdle that will enable discussions to ensue is only a starting point for what is going to be an extraordinarily difficult discussion, an extraordinarily difficult negotiation, one that will require the most painful of political decisions by both parties. And the president of the United States has a unique role to play in providing the confidence and the support and the persuasion that is necessary for those political decisions to be made. And the fact that he's here and returning today to chair this trilateral meeting is a reflection of the fact that his presence will often be required, not simply on relatively minor procedural hurdles, but also on the far, far more difficult political decisions about substantive issues."

So now the talks have begun, but they could not have begun without another beginning -- how to begin in the first place.