The highest-level peace talks ever between Syria and Israel got off to an uncertain start at the White House yesterday, as Syria's foreign minister delivered a surprisingly blunt list of grievances only moments after President Clinton and Israel's prime minister spoke optimistically of a landmark accord between the two longtime enemies.
The Syrian minister, Farouk Charaa, tempered his comments with suggestions that a lasting peace is possible between his nation and Israel, which have fought three major wars since Israel's founding 51 years ago. Still, his unexpected emphasis on Syria's travails lent a gloomy air to negotiations that Clinton and others hope will lead to a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.
"During the last half-century, in particular, the vision of the Arabs and their sufferings were totally ignored," Charaa said in his opening remarks, as Clinton stared at him intently. Adding to the moment's chilliness was Charaa's unwillingness to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as they stood with Clinton in the Rose Garden.
Even as the talks were starting, events in the Middle East also served as a reminder of the pitfalls that could lie ahead. Heavy fighting resumed in southern Lebanon, where Israeli forces are bogged down in a war of attrition with guerrillas who operate with Syria's blessing, and Jordan announced the arrest of 13 people it said were planning terrorist attacks against American targets.
Nonetheless, administration officials last night remained hopeful about the new talks, which mark the first time an Israeli prime minister has engaged in direct negotiations with a high-ranking Syrian. The negotiations center on Syria's demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which its forces captured in 1967, in exchange for full peace and normal relations.
Clinton, who worked for months to persuade Syria and Israel to resume talks that had broken off in 1996, put the best possible face on the day's events, which began at the White House before moving across the street to Blair House, where Barak and Charaa huddled with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright for the rest of the afternoon.
"What we are witnessing today is not yet peace," Clinton said in the foggy Rose Garden ceremony that kicked off the talks. "And getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path."
Flanked by Barak and Charaa, Clinton also referred to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat when he said: "We see now leaders with an unquestioned determination to defend and advance the interest of their own people, but also determined to marshal the courage and creativity, the vision and resolve, to secure a bright future based on peace, rather than a dark future under the storm clouds of continuing, endless conflict."
Originally, only Clinton was scheduled to speak. But moments before the three men strode from the Oval Office, Barak and Charaa told him they wanted to make a few remarks.
Barak, who followed Clinton, pronounced only three sentences, including: "We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace. We are fully aware of the opportunity, of the burden of responsibility, and of the seriousness, determination and devotion that will be needed in order to begin this march, together with our Syrian partners, to make a different Middle East where nations are living side by side in peaceful relationship."
Charaa, chosen by Syrian President Hafez Assad to meet with Barak, surprised the audience by reading a longer speech, which portrayed Syria as a victim of Israeli aggression and Western indifference.
"Peace for Syria means the return of all its occupied land, while for Israel, peace will mean the end of the psychological fear which the Israelis have been living in," Charaa said. Referring to Israelis who oppose giving up the Golan Heights, Charaa added: "Those who reject to return the occupied territories to their original owners . . . send a message to the Arabs that the conflict between Israel and Arabs is a conflict of existence in which bloodshed can never stop."
But at another point the Syrian envoy spoke as if peace were likely, saying: "The peace which the parties are going to reach will be established on justice and international legitimacy." Clinton and his aides took comfort in such remarks, playing down Charaa's more quarrelsome comments.
"What's important is not what gets said in public, it's the work that is done in private," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters.
Clinton took only one question from reporters about the talks, saying at midday: "They're going pretty well, but it's hard going and we've got work to do, so I'm going back to work."
Despite pleas from photographers, Barak and Charaa did not shake hands when they joined Clinton in the Rose Garden. Barak did, however, lightly touch Charaa's shoulder as he helped guide the Syrian envoy to his pre-arranged spot at the podium.
In keeping with the secretive nature of the talks, Lockhart disclosed no details of the discussions, except to say that "each side laid out, again, their concerns and discussed how to move forward in intensive negotiations."
The talks are expected to adjourn today and to resume at a more substantive level within the next several weeks, probably in the Washington area.
CAPTION: Israeli Premier Ehud Barak listens to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa's remarks before talks got underway.
CAPTION: Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak join President Clinton for Rose Garden statements before negotiations began. Charaa said Arabs' sufferings have been "totally ignored."