Syrian-Israeli peace talks adjourned here today with no announcement of concrete progress. But the two sides agreed to resume their landmark negotiations in nine days, and President Clinton pronounced himself "satisfied that everybody's working in good faith."
As a cold rain fell on this historic West Virginia town, negotiating teams led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa wrapped up their meetings at the hotel and conference center where they have spent the past week in intensive discussions on a possible deal to return the Golan Heights to Syria.
In keeping with participants' vows of secrecy, both sides refrained from public statements as they departed. But U.S. officials made it clear that important differences remain.
Already back in Israel, Foreign Minister David Levy said the parties "did not even get close" to agreement on the all-important question of a future border. Syria insists that Israel withdraw from the Golan to the line it held at the eve of war on June 4, 1967, a demand that Levy--who left the talks on Sunday--called "clearly unacceptable."
On the other hand, no one really expected a breakthrough at the Shepherdstown talks, the first substantive negotiations between Israel and Syria since Syrian President Hafez Assad last month agreed to resume talks after a hiatus of almost four years. Not only are the issues themselves momentous, but neither Barak nor Assad can afford to be seen as yielding too easily, given the powerful constituencies that oppose a peace treaty in each country.
In Tel Aviv today, a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 gathered to protest the possible withdrawal from the Golan, a strategic highland that overlooks Israel's Sea of Galilee. Barak has promised to submit any peace treaty with Syria to the public for approval in a national referendum.
In light of such political hurdles, U.S. mediators considered it a major achievement just to bring the two sides together for a week of more or less civil interaction, including chance encounters in the gym and--on Sunday night--a three-hour dinner with Clinton in front of a roaring hearth.
"I don't want to exaggerate. It isn't that there was enormous amounts of hugging," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said in describing the first "breaking of bread" between the two delegations. "But it was cordial. It was friendly."
On a more substantive level, the Syrians and Israelis agreed last week to form four so-called technical committees--on borders, water rights, security and the nature of future relations--all of which had met by Sunday.
In addition, U.S. mediators led by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last week presented the two sides with a "working document" that could provide a basis for a future settlement. Both have commented on the seven-page paper, which spells out areas of agreement and dispute--the latter surrounded by brackets--and is likely to be a starting point for the next round of talks.
"There have been new ideas that have surfaced," Rubin told reporters this afternoon, although he added, "I'm not going to declare that a major obstacle has been overcome in any particular area."
Ever since Clinton announced the resumption of talks last month, U.S. officials have indulged in the time-honored diplomatic ritual of warning against undue expectations of success. Clinton stuck to that theme today, telling reporters in Washington, "This is difficult stuff. This is very hard."
Clinton also said, however, that both sides are "working hard, and they are trying to find ways to resolve their differences. And they are trying to imagine the end of the road here. . . . I'm satisfied that everybody's working in good faith."
Each side has compelling reasons for seeking a settlement now--Barak because he wants to extricate Israeli forces from south Lebanon, where they are bogged down in a war of attrition with Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, and Assad to boost the chances that his son will succeed him as president. The Syrian leader is 69 and in frail health.
With just a year left in office, Clinton, too, is racing the clock. For all of those reasons, U.S. officials are eager to build on whatever momentum has been achieved in Shepherdstown by resuming the negotiations on Jan. 19. The location has not been determined, but officials said it is likely to be in the Washington area.
Although the spotlight is now on Israel's negotiations with Syria, Barak has also set a Feb. 13 deadline for reaching a so-called framework peace agreement with the Palestinians. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is scheduled to arrive in Washington Jan. 20, just a day after Barak and Charaa are to resume their talks. U.S. officials insist, however, that the two negotiating tracks are not in conflict and that Clinton is prepared to shuttle between them if necessary.