Syrian-Israeli peace talks appeared to make some headway today as President Clinton brought the two delegations together for their first direct talks in two days. But there was still no word on when the two sides would directly confront Syria's demand that Israel withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, the main Syrian condition for peace.
After traveling here from Washington for the fourth time this week, Clinton met jointly with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and senior members of their delegations. During the meeting, U.S. mediators presented an American-drafted "working document" aimed at clarifying areas of agreement and dispute.
Clinton, Barak and Charaa then met privately for 40 minutes before Clinton returned to Washington by helicopter. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin described the second meeting as "much more of a political discussion" involving "a lot of interaction about their various needs and their views."
Getting the two sides to sit down face to face today was something of an achievement. The talks opened here Monday amid soaring hopes for a peace treaty that could remake the political landscape of the Middle East. Within two days, however, the negotiations had stumbled over Syria's insistence that Israeli envoys engage in formal, technical discussions on a future border.
Israeli officials say they cannot grapple with the depth of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan--captured by Israel in 1967--until they know more about Syria's willingness to agree to demilitarized zones, early warning stations and other security arrangements. The Syrians say it is pointless to talk about security, water rights or the nature of future relations until they know whether Israel is willing to meet their core demand.
A member of the Syrian delegation said the completion of the seven-page working document, in particular, could help nudge things along. "We are satisfied because things are clearer now," the official said. "We won't be starting from zero every time."
Barak and Charaa are expected to remain here at least through the weekend. Rubin said members of the two delegations could stay into next week to hash out details after the chief envoys depart. But U.S. mediators have said they do not expect a core agreement to emerge from this first round of talks.