- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

GENEVA President Clinton yesterday implored Syrian President Hafez Assad to resume U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel, but it quickly became clear such talks would not be productive now.

The Syrian leader gave no timetable for a resumption of the talks that broke down in January at Shepherdstown, W.Va. There was also no indication that he was willing to meet face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Yesterday on ABC's "This Week," Mr. Barak said he would be willing to go to Damascus for talks, though his country's conditions haven't changed.

"It is impossible to predict when those talks might resume," said White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. "There are significant differences and I don't believe … that it would be productive for those to resume now."

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Assad met for about three hours.

"In this meeting tonight, the focus was on clarifying position," Mr. Lockhart said. "The differences are significant and important. More work needs to be done in order to bridge them."

"The gaps are not huge, but the path is difficult," White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger had warned reporters en route to Geneva. Those gaps "may not be reconcilable. I think that is a perfectly plausible result," he said.

During the Shepherdstown talks, Mr. Assad sent surrogates to meet with Mr. Barak, prompting speculation that the 69-year-old Syrian leader was not ready to cut a deal. But he seemed to be softening over the weekend when he put aside his usual reluctance to travel and flew here to meet with Mr. Clinton.

The Shepherdstown talks failed when the two sides could not agree even on which topics to tackle first. The Syrians wanted Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau the Jewish state seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War; Israel insisted on security assurances before ceding any land.

Over the last two months, Mr. Barak and Mr. Clinton have spoken a number of times by telephone, brainstorming for ideas on how to get Mr. Assad more actively involved in the peace process. The growing sense of urgency for a solution stems not just from Mr. Clinton's closing window of opportunity as his term nears its end, but also from reports that Mr. Assad's health has become fragile.

Yesterday's summit between Mr. Assad and Mr. Clinton took place six years after the last face-to-face meeting of the two leaders, which was held in the same luxury hotel overlooking picturesque Lake Geneva. The 1994 summit was preceded by high hopes, only to be followed by disappointment when no breakthrough occurred.

Although U.S. officials tried to dampen expectations for yesterday's summit, rumors of a breakthrough swirled tantalizingly through this scenic city at the foot of the Swiss Alps as the talks continued. After an initial meeting that lasted 2* hours, the participants took a break of about the same length before hunkering down again.

But 30 minutes later it was all over, and officials had no significant progress to report. Mr. Clinton departed for Washington, his hopes fading for a triumphant three-way summit with Mr. Barak and Mr. Assad before the end of his presidency less than 10 months from now.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the president's special Middle East peace coordinator, will brief Mr. Barak on details of yesterday's meeting, Mr. Lockhart said.

"We're going to continue to work with the parties," he said. "The president spoke face to face with President Assad today; the president spoke twice today with Prime Minister Barak. And all sides agree on the importance of continuing … to try to bridge differences in order to get to a peace deal."

The president meets this week in Washington with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is known to be influential with Mr. Assad.

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