High-level peace talks between Syria and Israel were indefinitely postponed yesterday after the two sides could not agree on how to approach the question of Israel's willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Clinton administration officials said.
The two adversaries held a week of negotiations earlier this month in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and were to resume talks in the Washington area on Wednesday. But administration officials said they decided to postpone the round after it became clear that the two sides are fundamentally at odds over the direction the discussions should take.
Syrian officials insist that the talks can go no further without a clear sign from Israel of its willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by the Jewish state in 1967. Israel wants to put off discussing withdrawal until it knows Syria's positions on other matters: security arrangements, water rights and the nature of future relations between the two countries.
"Each side was increasingly focused on the importance of having their most important needs resolved first," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters yesterday. "There's no question that they have in mind a different approach at this point."
The postponement marks a setback for Syrian-Israeli talks that reopened in Washington last month after a nearly four-year hiatus. The discussions in Washington and then Shepherdstown between delegations led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa have raised hopes for an end to the last active conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
On the other hand, yesterday's announcement does not mean that the talks are over. While Charaa and Barak will not travel to the United States this week, administration officials said the two chief negotiators had agreed to send lower-level envoys to continue work on a U.S.-drafted document intended to serve as a blueprint for a final peace treaty.
"It's certainly not a step forward," the senior official said of yesterday's announcement. On the other hand, the official said, "We always knew this was going to be a difficult process. . . . You're going to have fits and starts, and it's not going to be a linear progression, and that's what we have now."
Barak met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat late last night in surprise talks over their troubled peace process, which Palestinians fear has been overshadowed by the Syrian talks. The two leaders met in secret for more than three hours in central Israel to weigh postponing by two months the Feb. 13 deadline for a U.S.-brokered framework accord, the forerunner to a permanent peace deal to be concluded by September, Israeli political sources said.
In Damascus, meanwhile, a Syrian official told Reuters that "contacts are underway among the parties involved to establish the necessary ground that would lead to progress in the next round of Syrian-Israeli peace talks," adding: "We felt that the new round should lead to real progress and not hang on procedural matters. That is why we wanted more preparation for the coming negotiations."
Barak, too, played down the significance of the delay. "If it isn't comfortable for the Syrians to come now, and they need some time, they should take the time," he said in Jerusalem. "We will come when there are discussions, and the delay, if in fact it is agreed on, does not bother us."
As the sponsor of the talks, the Clinton administration has been careful to avoid the appearance of taking sides, and administration officials yesterday declined to assign blame for the latest hitch.
In a statement announcing the postponement yesterday, Albright said simply, "Their approaches to the next round differ, and as a result there is going to be a delay. Each side has agreed to send experts to Washington to meet us and provide comments on" the American-drafted text.
The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the decision to put off the talks was made in Washington. Clinton has been in touch with both Charaa and Barak over the last several days, as has Albright, who spoke with Charaa from Mexico on Saturday and yesterday.
"The reality is we could have insisted on both sides coming and they would have come," the official said.
The impasse is procedural and substantive. Syria has long insisted that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to the line it occupied on June 4, 1967, on the eve of the war that cost Syria the Golan.
Such a settlement is unpopular in Israel because it would extend Syrian territory to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which supplies Israel with much of its fresh water. Barak has said only that the extent of Israel's withdrawal will be determined by Syria's willingness to meet Israel's conditions on security guarantees, water and the nature of future relations.
That difference in approach nearly derailed the Shepherdstown talks in their first hours. But U.S. mediators led by Albright finessed the issue by forming committees to deal with the main points of dispute--borders included--more or less simultaneously.
Now the chickens have come home to roost. In public statements from Damascus, Syrian officials have made it clear that they are unwilling to go further until Israeli negotiators sit down with them and confront the Golan issue, a condition Barak has thus far been unwilling to accept. U.S. officials say the Syrian position may have hardened on this point thanks to the publication last week in an Israeli newspaper of the American-drafted "working document."
The supposedly secret document, which lays out areas of agreement and dispute, made it appear as if Syria had given up more than it had gotten in the Shepherdstown talks. U.S. officials presume that Barak's office leaked the document to blunt growing domestic opposition to returning the Golan. But its publication at this juncture could present problems for Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose legitimacy rests in part on the perception that he will never yield to the Jewish state.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Damascus and special correspondent Mike O'Connor in Jerusalem contributed to this report.