- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Syria and Israel yesterday abruptly canceled a third round of peace talks two days before they were to open near Washington, leaving U.S. officials scrambling to keep the negotiations on track.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed in Jerusalem that he would not be leaving tomorrow as planned for a new round of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa. With the Clinton administration serving as "facilitator," the two were negotiating a return of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a wide-ranging peace and security accord for Israel.
The main obstacle: Syria's insistence that Israel commit to the return of the Golan, seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, before any further talks on a broader normalization of relations between the two belligerent states can proceed.
In a carefully worded statement, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the two parties' "approaches to the next round differ, and, as a result, there is going to be a delay."
Following the announcement that talks were being postponed, Mr. Barak met Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in surprise talks over their troubled peace process, which Palestinians fear has been cast aside by the Syrian track.
The two met in secret in central Israel to weigh postponing by two months the Feb. 13 deadline for a U.S.-brokered framework accord, the forerunner to a permanent peace deal to be concluded by September, Israeli political sources said.
Mr. Barak angered Palestinians Sunday by announcing he would put off the turnover of more West Bank land due to have taken place this week under their own September peace deals.
Mr. Arafat flies today to Washington to give Mr. Clinton on Thursday an outline for a permanent peace with Israel.
Syria's official SANA news service reported that Mrs. Albright and Mr. Sharaa late yesterday had held another telephone conversation, discussing dates for a possible resumption of the talks.
The two ministers "discussed the date of the next round of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, and the role of the United States in bringing the peace process to a successful conclusion," the SANA report said.
Mrs. Albright noted that Israel and Syria have agreed to send lower-level experts to Washington to discuss a U.S.-prepared draft treaty. American officials said the experts could arrive by the end of the week, and would continue to work on key side issues in the proposed Golan accord, including future security arrangements and water rights.
But the indefinite postponement was a clear signal that both sides have much work to do to clinch a land-for-security deal.
The breakdown clearly began with Damascus, following a surprise Sunday night phone call between Mr. Sharaa and Mrs. Albright. Syria wants the return of land to be the talks' first order of business, while Mr. Barak's government has sought concessions on other fronts before tackling the politically delicate decision to return the strategic highlands.
"We are now demanding a concrete review of the negotiations and that requires an undertaking by Israel to demarcate the border of June 4, 1967," Syria's official state radio said in a commentary yesterday, referring to the land Syria lost in the 1967 war.
Mr. Sharaa, according to the radio report, said further face-to-face talks with Mr. Barak were "useless" until there is an Israeli commitment on the territory issue.
"The Syrians are trying to make the case in public that the return of the Golan Heights is their alpha and omega in these talks," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They're trying to up the ante for Barak."
But the Israeli prime minister, who met yesterday with Yasser Arafat on parallel negotiations for a peace deal with his Palestinian Authority, appeared to take the news of the postponement in stride.
"We respect [Syrian] President [Hafez] Assad and if he needs some time before negotiations resume, we respect it," Mr. Barak said.
But, facing intense domestic political pressure as both the Syrian and Palestinian negotiations proceed, Mr. Barak cautioned: "We do not take diktats from anyone on Earth… . We will be there when they will be there."
An illustration of Mr. Barak's difficulties came yesterday when a pipe bomb hidden in a garbage can detonated in a park in the Israeli coastal town of Hadera, wounding 21 persons. Israeli police said the blast was probably carried out by Islamic militants who hope to derail the process, although the largest hard-line Muslim group, Hamas, denied any involvement.
And Israel's chief rabbis yesterday ruled that the Golan Heights is an integral part of the biblical land of Israel, although the Chief Rabbinical Council did not say that Jewish law forbids surrendering the Golan in a definitive peace deal.
U.S. officials were quick to say the postponement does not mean a collapse of the talks, and hiccups were to be expected in resuming wide-ranging peace talks after a bitter four-year freeze.
President Clinton, talking to reporters just before the Wednesday bargaining session was canceled, said he remained convinced that both Syria and Israel "still want to [make peace]."
"They're not as far apart as they have been," said Mr. Clinton, who personally intervened in the Shepherdstown talks on a number of occasions earlier this month.
But James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said Syrian sentiment on dealing with the land and border issues first ran deep. The atmosphere for future talks was not helped, he said, by the leak to an Israeli newspaper of the working U.S. text for the talks, which Damascus has interpreted as an Israeli ploy to lock in Syrian concessions.
"I think it's becoming clear that the expectations people had for these talks were much higher than the ability of the parties to carry them out easily," said Mr. Zogby.
"I think the Israelis in particular have not shown they're ready to do the basic things that the Syrians need to clinch this agreement domestically," Mr. Zogby said.
The Washington Institute's Mr. Satloff said it was too soon to tell if this week's postponement signaled a deeper problem with the negotiations.
"Right now, the two sides are trying to order their priorities, to see who has to make which concessions first," he said. "I suspect there is a fair amount of posturing and brinkmanship at work here, too."

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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