As Mideast Talks Resume, Syrians Take Center Stage


MIDDLE East peace talks reconvene in Washington today amid hopes that Israel and Syria will be able to bury decades of animosity and move toward a historic swap, with Damascus regaining territory on the Golan Heights in exchange for normalizing relations with the Israeli government.

The Israeli-Palestinian track appears to have hit tough obstacles, however, throwing into doubt the accord signed in September. Over the weekend, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yassar Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres failed to agree on implementation details for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

The Dec. 13 deadline for Israeli troop withdrawal from the affected areas has long been missed. In Oslo for the funeral of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Holst, who brought Israel and the PLO together, Mr. Peres and Mr. Arafat said they had made some progress and would keep trying. ``Everything we do is new. It is unprecedented, and it is normal ... that each side is careful not to establish the wrong precedent,'' Peres said.

When the United States-sponsored Middle East talks were launched in Madrid two years ago, the Syrian-Israeli track seemed the most promising. Israel and the Palestinians appeared mired in hopeless animosity. Both Jordan and Lebanon, participants of the other two tracks, were thought to be waiting on comprehensive Arab progress before agreeing to their own peace plans.

The breakthrough PLO peace pact scrambled that wisdom. But as both Arafat and the Israeli government have stiffened on implementation issues, the Syrian-Israeli negotiations have again claimed major attention, if not actual center stage.

In Geneva last week, Syrian President Hafez Assad said he would accept ``normal peaceful relations'' with Israel. This phrase was hailed as a large step by US officials, who have seen in it the promise of full normalization, including an exchange of ambassadors and open borders, that Israel wants.

The Israelis have reacted more cautiously, saying only that the meeting produced some positive steps. They have talked of withdrawal ``on'' not ``from'' the Golan. But Israel's chief negotiator in Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, said Israel had accepted the principle of territorial concessions to reach peace with Syria - and these would not be minor concessions.

Whether progress between Israel and Syria will come in the Washington talks is another issue. Some experts say the recent record of diplomacy proves that major progress is made only on a higher plane. In secret talks in Oslo, for example, or a Geneva summit between the US president and his Syrian counterpart.

A case in point is the fact that the PLO and Israel are counting on a high-level meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, as their next forum to make real progress on items like control of border crossings between Jordan and Jericho and Egypt and Gaza, and security provided to Jewish settlers in the Jericho region.

In Washington, delegations will meet in undisclosed locations to reduce posturing - but even that might not help produce movement, says Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``Things are now at the level where political leaderships are going to be taking decisions,'' he says. It also remains to be seen whether Mr. Assad's statement on normal relations was aimed at making progress with Israel or improving relations with the US, Satloff says. Others say the Washington meetings form the foundation for talks elsewhere. ``Hopefully, the next round will produce some substantive progress on the Syrian track, which would then open the way for progress on Jordan,'' says Khalil Jhashan, National Association of Arab Americans director.

Mr. Jhashan has been pleased by the active role the Clinton administration has taken in pushing Israel and Syria together but would like to see a similar role taken in the Israeli-Palestinian process. ``We are concerned about allowing the parties to kind of let implementation deadlines go by,'' he says.

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