- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

Historic peace talks between Israel and Syria opened under a cloud yesterday with the Arab nation’s chief delegate blaming Israel for 50 years of hostility and avoiding a public handshake with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, grim-faced under a foggy sky, stunned President Clinton and Mr. Barak with his opening remarks at the White House, where he sharply accused Israel of occupying Arab lands throughout its existence.
Mr. Sharaa repeated Syria’s bedrock demand for the return of “all its occupied land” but said a peace accord with Israel would eliminate a “barrier of fear and anxieties.”
“Ending occupation [of the Golan Heights] will be balanced for the first time by eliminating the barrier of fear and anxieties, and exchanging it with a true and a mutual feeling of peace and security,” he said.
Still, Mr. Sharaa renewed Syrian President Hafez Assad’s offer of a “just and comprehensive” peace. That, he said, “would indeed mean for our region the end of a history of wars and conflicts.”
Israeli sources said the chill of the official Rose Garden ceremony gave way to a warmer atmosphere when Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharaa disappeared behind closed doors. Once out of sight of the cameras, the two old enemies exchanged a private handshake, the sources said.
Analysts said Mr. Sharaa’s hard-line recitation of grievances against Israel appeared aimed at the audience in Syria, which until now has remained aloof from the peace process, criticizing Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians as each made peace with Israel.
But his remarks were upsetting to Israelis, who still must approve any treaty giving up the Golan Heights in a referendum that is bound to be bitterly divisive.
“When one comes in the spirit of peace, as we all hope, the tone of such statements was not very helpful,” said Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval. “Especially when the Israeli public is eager to learn whether the Syrian side is imbued with the same spirit as the Israeli people.”
Mr. Clinton, who had worked quietly behind the scenes for months to bring about yesterday’s meeting, said during the Rose Garden ceremony that a comprehensive Middle East peace was “vital to the world and the security of the American people.”
The conflict had often led to U.S. military involvement that was “costlier than the costliest peace,” he added, indicating that any peace accord might involve large U.S. outlays of cash and effort.
Americans have been involved in Middle East conflicts such as the bombing of a U.S. spy ship in 1967, the loss of more than 200 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1982, an arms airlift to Israel in 1973 and the maintenance of peacekeeping troops in Sinai since 1982.
“For the first time in history, there is a chance of a comprehensive peace between Israel and Syria, and indeed all its neighbors,” Mr. Clinton said.
With Mr. Clinton and Mr. Barak standing silently beside him, Mr. Sharaa said Israel’s occupation of Arab lands was “undoubtedly the source of all adversities and wars.”
The Syrian official accused Israel of lying when it said it seized the heights in 1967 because Syria had been using it to shell Israel.
He also attacked the world media for ignoring the suffering of Syrians who were thrown off the Golan 32 years ago, and for focusing instead on recent protests by some of the 17,000 Israeli settlers facing eviction if the Golan is returned to Syria.
Mr. Clinton met yesterday with both leaders together and then separately with each for more than an hour while Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with the other.
Afterward, each delegation leader traveled by motorcade across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, where they held further talks in the presence of Mrs. Albright.
The two did not meet without American mediators, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. The talks broke off around 4 p.m. to permit Mr. Sharaa and the Syrian delegation to observe the end of the Ramadan fast day at sunset.
The goal is to set up a process of meetings over the coming weeks and months, most likely in the United States, to define the extent of Israel’s withdrawal from Syrian land, establish security guarantees for Israel and establish the guidelines for a peaceful relationship afterward.
U.S. officials yesterday said they would not rule out sending U.S. troops to patrol the Golan if it would be necessary for a peace agreement. About 1,000 U.S. troops still patrol the Sinai since it was returned by Israel to Egypt in 1982.
Given the vitriol in relations between Damascus and Jerusalem, and Syria’s years of support for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon to bleed Israel, analysts hope for little more than a cold peace with little economic, cultural or human contact other than Israeli tourism to the other side.
Mr. Sharaa’s public comments are bound to make it harder for Mr. Barak to win Israeli voters’ approval of any peace treaty that includes a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, several analysts said yesterday.
Mr. Barak already faces death threats scrawled on walls in Israel, recalling those made on the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was assassinated by an Israeli hard-liner in 1995.
Mr. Lockhart dismissed the Syrian leader’s remarks as “long-held and previously stated” Syrian views of Israel.
“It is not surprising there are real differences,” he said. “The discussion is mostly focused on how to move forward.”
Earlier yesterday, a Western diplomat in London said U.S. officials expect Syria and Israel to complete a peace treaty well ahead of a September deadline for a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“If the Syria-Israel talks last till September, we’ve got a problem… . It’s designed to be well before September, said the diplomat, who spoke to Reuters news agency on the condition he not be identified.
“The Palestinian track, whatever the outcome, is going to be a much slower process. I don’t think anyone really envisages finishing every last piece of the permanent peace by February or September,” the diplomat said.

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