- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa sit down today in the hills of West Virginia to begin the serious business of making peace, far from the lights and hoopla of last month’s White House meeting.
Analysts and diplomats say security guarantees on the Golan Heights and water rights to the Sea of Galilee will be the most difficult issues as Israel seeks peace and normalized relations in exchange for a withdrawal from the strategic heights seized in 1967.
Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharaa both left yesterday for the talks, which will open in the presence of President Clinton at a conference center in Shepherdstown, a Colonial-era town overlooking the Potomac River about 70 miles northwest of Washington.
No closing date has been set for the negotiations, which are expected to last at least a week.
“We have to be very realistic. We don’t know how long it’s going to take… . We will assess where we are at the end of the week, and we are just going to be keep working on it,” said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who will remain at Shepherdstown all week. She said Mr. Clinton will appear as needed.
“This is a huge historic opportunity,” Mrs. Albright said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“But because there are so many fateful decisions involved in it, I think it will be a very difficult set of negotiations… .
“I am clearly very much seized with the idea that we are doing something that is historic, that the opportunity is there and that these two [Syrian] President [Hafez] Assad and Prime Minister Barak are prepared to make the fateful decisions,” she said.
Both sides indicated in advance of last month’s breakthrough meeting in Washington that a peace agreement was possible within months. But positions appeared to be hardening yesterday ahead of the first substantive talks.
Mr. Barak, who has hinted he would give up most of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, told Israel radio before his departure that a deal was possible only if Syria would “give a general, broad answer” satisfying Israel on several issues.
These included “security arrangements, water sources … and total normalization of relations, opening of embassies, borders, normalization of relations with Syria and with Lebanon,” he said.
“I have no doubt these will be tough talks. Agreements come at a price, but you don’t make one at any price,” Mr. Barak added.
Syria’s official daily al-Thawra, meanwhile, said the outcome of the talks last month “does not give us reason to be optimistic, and it is premature to predict whether the talks will be a success.”
Israel “did not give even a single proof of good intentions. All it offered were words and promises that no serious progress could be built on,” it said.
A Syrian official was quoted by Reuters news agency saying his country would settle for nothing less that an Israeli withdrawal to the lines that existed on the eve of the 1967 war which would give Syria a stretch of shoreline on the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main source of fresh water.
“Israel’s full withdrawal from the Golan to the June 4, 1967, lines is a settled issue. It is not a matter for bargaining or negotiation,” the official said yesterday.
Richard Parker, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the water issue could turn out to be even more difficult than the security guarantees Israel seeks in return for leaving the heights.
Israel is believed to want to retain a 33-foot-wide strip along the eastern shore of the Galilee that belonged to Israel then the British Mandate in Palestine under a 1923 international boundary, as well as under a 1949 armistice declaration.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said the United States would take part in the talks as a “facilitator,” much as it did in marathon talks at Wye Plantation in Maryland between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 1998.
The official said it was not likely that anything concrete would be concluded in this round of talks, but that the two sides were starting “hard bargaining on core issues.”
Another important issue for both sides is whether Syria is willing or able to rein in Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded militia fighting against Israeli troops and a proxy militia in Israel’s self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon.
Mr. Barak, tired of steady Israeli losses in the zone, has pledged to pull out by July, but would like assurances that Hezbollah will not take advantage of the opportunity to resume rocket attacks on towns in northern Israel.
Mr. Sharaa, meanwhile, said last month that a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon must be part of any comprehensive Israel-Syria deal.
Mr. Barak has promised to submit any deal on the Golan Heights for approval in a national referendum, something that is not assured with public opinion in Israel evenly split.
Opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon laid out the argument against withdrawal in the New York Times last week, saying Israel needs the heights to combat missile threats and ground attacks from “Syria’s 4,000 tanks and 1,000 missiles.”
He also noted that Israel “has not made explicit demands … that the United States will not rearm Syria with advanced Western weapons after an agreement is reached.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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