- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. President Clinton returned unexpectedly to the Middle East peace talks yesterday after Israeli and Syrian negotiators cleared their first major hurdle a dispute over where to begin talks on the Golan Heights.

Mr. Clinton traveled by motorcade through light rain for 70 miles to this Colonial-era town to host a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, their first face-to-face encounter since convening here Monday.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin proclaimed the talks "substantial and successful."

"We are quite pleased with how the day unfolded in light of the hurdles," said Mr. Rubin, who acknowledged for the first time that the sides had been deadlocked from the beginning of their talks on Monday.

Mr. Rubin said yesterday's three-way meeting, held at the Clarion Hotel with no aides present other than Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, was "constructive" and "rigorous… . The process is on track."

Mr. Rubin declined to say how the sides resolved their first disagreement a squabble that kept Mr. Clinton in West Virginia until almost 11 p.m. Monday night and delayed the face-to-face meeting between the delegation leaders.

Syria had demanded that the boundaries for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights be the first item on the agenda, while Israel wanted to begin with guarantees for its security once it withdraws.

Israeli and Syrian teams of negotiators had been expected to meet in small groups all week for detailed talks on specific areas of conflict such as the return of the Golan Heights, security arrangements, sharing of water and the nature of the peace between the two old enemies.

In a first informal mingling, Mr. Clinton met for a half-hour with six delegates from each country before he returned to the White House.

The president has arranged a light schedule this week so that he can help with the "painful decisions needed by both sides," Mr. Rubin said. He did not use a helicopter to attend yesterday's talks because of the rain.

While Israel is expected to abandon the strategic Golan Heights and resettle 17,000 people living there, Syria will have to make painful security concessions impinging on its sovereignty, Mr. Rubin said.

These will likely include restrictions on Syrian military activity on the heights and provisions to give Israel early warning of any Syrian movements toward the border, where three wars have been fought since 1948.

Mr. Rubin said the stalemate was broken after a morning meeting between Mr. Barak and Mrs. Albright. But he refused to say that either side had capitulated or even to describe the dispute.

Speaking earlier in Jerusalem, however, Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon accused Syria of not sticking to the agenda.

"We will insist that what was agreed will be respected… . They demand that first we'll decide on the borders, and then we'll discuss security," Mr. Ramon told Reuters news agency.

He said security and normalization had precedence over the determination of borders because, he said, "the size of the withdrawal depends on what security arrangement we will reach."

Mr. Rubin warned that comments from Middle East sources who had not attended the initial meetings between the two sides at Blair House last month were not reliable.

Other sources said both sides were reluctant to discuss the issues in which they will be called upon to make concessions, fearing they will be at a disadvantage when they take up other issues.

Israeli peace deals with Syria and its client state Lebanon would "close the circle," leaving Israel with peace pacts with all its Arab neighbors.

Syria wants to reclaim land down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which it held until losing the Golan Heights in 1967 during the Six Day War. Israel wants to return to a pre-1948 border that denies Syria any access to the sea, the major source of Israeli fresh water.

The Shepherdstown talks are expected to last all week, probably shifting to an informal format during the Muslim holy day of Id on Friday and the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, said an Israeli veteran of last year's Israeli-Palestinian talks at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

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