At 10 o'clock this morning, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa are scheduled to meet at the White House for what will be, by any measure, a history-making event--the opening of high-level talks aimed at ending half a century of bloodshed and mutual hostility.
Just don't expect them to shake hands.
For all the soaring expectations that surround the first meeting between Israel and Syria in nearly four years--and the highest-level contact ever between the two neighbors and longtime enemies--Charaa has made it clear that he intends no affectations of chumminess when he appears with Barak at a Rose Garden welcoming ceremony to be conducted by President Clinton, administration officials said.
News of Charaa's reluctance to shake hands has come as a disappointment--though perhaps not a surprise--to Israeli officials. But to the Clinton administration, which announced the resumption of talks last week, chumminess is not really the point--at least not yet.
During their two days of talks at Blair House, across the street from the White House, Barak and Charaa will focus primarily on procedural matters, administration officials said. They will also set a date for the resumption of more substantive negotiations, probably in the Washington area, centering on Syria's demand that Israel return the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and normal relations.
"Obviously, we feel there's momentum and we are going to want to be building on the momentum," said a senior official who briefed reporters at the White House. "But I think the first two days will be much more geared towards organization and the process than anything else."
Notwithstanding Barak's stated preference for a reduced American role in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, it is clear that Clinton--who regards a Middle East peace settlement as central to his legacy--and his envoys will be intimately involved in the Syrian-Israeli talks.
After a joint meeting with Clinton at the White House this morning, Barak and Charaa are scheduled to meet separately with the president. Each will also meet privately with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. From the White House, they will adjourn with Albright to Blair House, where Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, among others, will be standing by to provide assistance as needed.
"Precisely when we'll be sitting in the room with them, if there will be times when we're not--that's something that we'll discuss with them," the official said, adding, "We will have a continuous role."
Talks between Israel and Syria broke off in 1996. But hopes for a settlement rose when Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad traded mutual expressions of praise after Barak took office in June. One stumbling block had been Syria's insistence that Israel publicly acknowledge what Assad says was a commitment made by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to withdraw from the Golan to the line that divided the Syrian and Israeli armies on June 4, 1967, at the beginning of the Six-Day War.
Israel disputes Syria's interpretation of the earlier talks, and Assad never got the acknowledgment he sought. On the other hand, both sides have compelling reasons for moving quickly to make peace--Assad for internal political reasons and Barak because he is eager to extricate Israeli forces from their war against Syrian-backed guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
"I know that there is a sense of urgency on both sides," the senior U.S. official said. "I know there's a commitment and a clear determination, as reflected by the level [of the envoys]."
"But there are differences," the official added. "The whole idea was to get back to the table so they could resolve their differences. And I think when you're dealing with negotiations on what are issues that are very fateful in the eyes of both parties, one should assume that the negotiations would not necessarily just move in a linear direction."
Syria-Israel Peace Talks
Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria are to resume here today for the first time since they collapsed in 1996 following a string of terrorist attacks in Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff, became foreign minister after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa was a Syrian airline executive before rising in the ranks of the ruling Baath Party and becoming foreign minister in 1985.
Size: Slightly smaller than New Jersey
Population: 5.75 million
Government type: Republic
Gross domestic product: $101.9 billion
Annual defense expenditures: $11 billion
Size: Slightly larger than North Dakota
Population: 17.2 million
Government type: Republic under military regime
Gross domestic product: $41.7 billion
Annual defense expenditures: $2.7 billion
1948: State of Israel proclaimed. First Arab-Israeli war begins when Syria and other Arab nations invade.
1949: Syria signs armistice but refuses to recognize Israel.
1967: Israel captures Golan Heights from Syria in Six Day War.
1973: Syria and Egypt launch surprise attack on Israel. Israelis repel Syrians from Golan.
1974: U.N. observer force established in demilitarized zone.
1981: Israel annexes Golan.
1991: Syria joins Jordan, Lebanon and Palestinians at U.S.-brokered Madrid peace conference with Israel.
1992: Yitzhak Rabin becomes Israeli prime minister.
1995: Shimon Peres succeeds Rabin. Peace talks resume late in year.
1996: Four suicide bombings prompt Israel to withdraw from negotiations.
December: Israel and Syria agree to resume talks, after behind-the-scenes brokering by U.S.
WHAT WILL BE NEGOTIATED
Land: Syria demands that Israel surrender all of the Golan Heights up to the line that divided the Israeli and Syrian armies on the eve of the 1967 war. This would extend Syrian territory to the Sea of Galilee. The Israelis prefer the border drawn up by colonial powers in 1923, which would set the Syrians back from the waterfront, if only by as little as 30 feet.
Security: Israel has considered the Golan Heights, which looms over northern Israel, essential to its early warning capability. Israel has said it will seek security guarantees from Syria. Israel will demand that Damascus crack down on militant Palestinian groups who have headquarters in Syria and on Hezbollah fighters who are trying to push Israeli troops out of Lebanon.
Normalization: Israel wants diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with its Arab neighbors. Such ties have been slow to develop with other countries after peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
SOURCES: Staff reports; "World Fact Book," CIA; "The Military Balance," International Institute for Strategic Studies; Associated Press
CAPTION: Prime Minister Ehud Barak greets a young Israeli at Ben-Gurion airport.
CAPTION: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, right, prepares to leave Israel for talks with Syrian foreign minister.