- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. President Clinton scrubbed a planned meeting with leaders of Israel and Syria last night, indefinitely postponing the three-way talks that were supposed to cap the opening day of peace talks.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart blamed the abrupt cancellation on longer-than-expected separate meetings that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had with Israeli and Syrian delegations in this remote town 68 miles northwest of Washington.

But he added that the president has no plans to return today. He left late yesterday.

"I don't know when we're coming back," said the spokesman, who added that the president was not disappointed by the delay.

Asked by The Washington Times whether the development should be interpreted as a sign of trouble in the talks, Mr. Lockhart said: "I wouldn't interpret it one way or another just that the schedule is often fluid."

Asked by The Times whether possible acrimony between the Israeli and Syrian delegations might have contributed to the delay, he added: "I'm just not going to get into the substance of the discussions. All I need to say is that after the meetings with the secretary of state, the team made the judgment that this was the best way to move forward."

Mr. Lockhart, who told reporters of the change in plans at about 9:30 p.m., said the president would instead meet alone with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa before heading back to Washington. It was Mr. Clinton's second such meeting with the Syrian diplomat, compared with one meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"A judgment was made that the best way to move forward was to do the second bilateral this evening, and by the time we finished with that, it would probably be at a late-enough hour that it be worth just heading home," he said.

At 11 p.m., after Mr. Clinton concluded his meeting with Mr. Sharaa, Mr. Lockhart was asked whether he would stand by his 6-hour-old statement that the talks were off to a good start. He paused for nine seconds before finally saying, "Sure."

The unexpected change in plans came after a day of soaring rhetoric from Clinton administration officials.

State Department spokesman Robert P. Rubin, who said he had "packed more than seven days worth" of clothing in the event that talks drag on, said, "This is a historic opportunity. It's an opportunity that we think should be seized."

Mr. Clinton also cleared his schedule for most of this week and next in order to be able to get to Shepherdstown at a moment's notice, and his aides were openly talking about massive amounts of U.S. aid that may be necessary to grease the wheels of peace.

"The president is prepared to invest as many days as appropriate, as many days as will be constructive," Mr. Lockhart said. "He stands ready."

Mr. Rubin made a point of turning off his cellular phone in front of reporters and warned about problems with reception, which he implied was not an accident.

In that context, Mr. Rubin warned against press leaks that marred peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at the Wye River Plantation in 1998.

"We're here to make a peace agreement, not to make a headline," Mr. Rubin told reporters. "And if that means that news is scarce and cell phones are turned off or they don't exist, that's a small price to pay for the outcome."

Peace talks had begun earlier in the day in an icy atmosphere, with envoys from the two nations refusing to shake hands or even meet in person without U.S. chaperones.

Mr. Clinton had to trot out Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharaa across a rustic bridge for a photo opportunity because they refused to meet without an American.

The Syrian and Israeli delegations are "sequestered" in a large hotel, where they will be forced to rub shoulders in the halls and dining room with limited contact via cellular phones with the outside world.

Sources close to the talks said Mr. Clinton met for one hour with Mr. Barak at the National Conservation Training Center, a few miles from the hotel. The president then had a similar meeting with Mr. Sharaa.

Although the carefully choreographed walk had Mr. Clinton alternately speaking to Mr. Sharaa on his left and Mr. Barak on his right, the two Middle East leaders did not appear to converse directly, much less shake hands.

An Israeli source said the U.S. delegation, which includes Mrs. Albright, is staying in the central part of the hotel while Syrians and Israelis occupy opposite wings.

Mr. Rubin also discounted reports that the two longtime enemies might resolve some issues without a comprehensive peace, saying, "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

Still, Mr. Rubin signaled that a lack of any progress at this week's talks would be a defeat for Mr. Clinton, who is eager to burnish his foreign-policy legacy in his final year in office. Clinton aides made no secret of their intention to offer financial aid to Syria and Israel.

Mr. Rubin said the United States could share the hefty cost which could reach $20 billion of relocating Israel's military bases and 17,000 settlers from the Golan.

Although the Republican Congress is not expected to rush approval for any Clinton-sponsored aid package in a presidential election year, administration officials yesterday put lawmakers on notice that they should expect a hefty appropriations request.

"We haven't begun formal consultations with Congress about that kind of package or the specifics of that kind of package, but generally speaking, you know, this is a big, big deal, and a deal this big is going to carry with it a price tag," Mr. Rubin said.

"But we believe the peace is so important, and our vital interests could so be strengthened by a peace agreement that is worth our playing an important role," he added. "How big that role is, what it consists of are the kind of details it's too premature for me to speculate on."

Israel wants Syrian President Hafez Assad to join the talks in order to sign off on any deal, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told reporters on the plane bringing Mr. Barak to Washington on Sunday.

But Mr. Rubin said that the United States has been assured by Mr. Assad that his foreign minister has "plenipotentiary powers to make decisions for the Syrian delegation."

Syria and Israel have been in a state of war since 1948 when Arab armies attacked the Jewish state upon its declaration of independence under a U.N. resolution.

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