- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

President Clinton yesterday announced plans to meet Syria's ailing leader in Geneva Sunday while Israeli and Palestinian negotiators headed to Washington to begin "final status" peace talks today at Bolling Air Force Base on the bank of the Potomac.

Syrian President Hafez Assad's decision to meet Mr. Clinton marks a new level of commitment to sputtering peace talks with Israel aimed at recovering the Golan Heights in exchange for ending a half-century state of war.

"I don't want to unduly raise expectations," Mr. Clinton told reporters during a joint appearance in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Prime Minister Sheik Hasina.

"But I think that this is an appropriate thing for me to do, to try to get this back on track, so that our objectives of having a comprehensive peace can go forward."

He made note of the meetings set for today at Bolling, adding: "We've worked very hard with the parties to get the Palestinian and Israeli track back going, and they're doing very, very well indeed."

"This is the next logical step," he said.

Mr. Assad sent his foreign minister, Farouk Sharaa, to negotiate with Israel in Washington in December and in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in January. But even Mr. Clinton's frequent intervention failed to win an agreement when the Syrians insisted on getting back all of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak dug in his heels, insisting Syria first pledge to make a meaningful peace pact ending a half-century state of war.

"The president felt the next logical step was for him to meet directly with President Assad," said Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, in Dhaka.

He added: "I don't expect an instant result from this meeting but hopefully it can move the process forward."

Mr. Barak said in a prepared statement: "We hope that the meeting will lead to a renewal of the negotiations, but such talks will take place only if the appropriate conditions are created."

Mr. Clinton will meet Mr. Assad in Geneva en route to Washington after a week visiting India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In Washington yesterday, Palestinian and Israeli delegations began arriving for what is expected to be a week of negotiations on the remaining "final status" issues blocking a peace accord scheduled for September.

A State Department official said about a half-dozen people from each side would negotiate at Bolling and stay in military housing on the base.

After about a week, the negotiators are expected to fly back to their homelands for consultations with their leaders and then return to Bolling for further talks.

Aided by U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, the Palestinians and Israelis are to chip away at the final obstacles to a peace pact, which are:

• The status of the old city of Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967. It holds Judaism's holiest site the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, of the temple of Solomon and Herod.

Palestinians covet the Old City as the capital of their hoped-for state, citing its mainly Arab population and it being the site of Islam's third-holiest shrine, atop the temple mount, from where they say the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

• The status of the 60 percent of the West Bank to remain in Israeli hands after 6.1 percent of the land the final portion ceded under previous accords is handed over beginning today.

Palestinians hope to get all of the remaining land back under U.N. resolutions calling for complete return of Arab land that Israel seized in 1967. Israel wants to retain security zones along the Jordan River and its own frontier as well as with most of the Israeli settlements built after 1967.

Other issues include the possible return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees from Lebanon and Jordan to the West Bank and possibly Israel; and the nature of a final peace as well as what security arrangements will prevent terrorism.

An Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said that "the negotiations starting at Bolling Air Force Base have two primary targets. One, the achievement of a framework agreement with the Palestinians by May, and second, to discuss the third and final withdrawal" as outlined in the interim agreement.

The Palestinians want all the remaining West Bank said Said Hamid, deputy representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington.

"That's what we hope for," he said."

An Israeli source speaking on the condition of anonymity said that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly offered them only 1 percent of that land. A decision by Mr. Barak to "move closer to the Palestinian's demands" would depend on how peace talks proceed.

Analyst Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was skeptical an accord would easily be reached to bridge the Israeli and Palestinian positions.

"The major bone of contention is still land more than any other items on the agenda," he said.

He also noted that Mr. Assad's decision to travel to Geneva came because of a sense that it's "now or never" to reach a peace deal with Israel and get the Golan Heights back.

Once Israel leaves southern Lebanon as promised in July, Syria will lose its leverage its ability to send Hezbollah guerillas to kill Israeli troops.

Palestinian negotiators are led by Yasser Abed Rabo while Israel's team is led by Oded Eran.

• Bill Sammon reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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