The worn-out Israeli and Syrian delegations to the peace talks in West Virginia wrapped up yesterday and headed back to the Middle East. After eight days sequestered in the Shepherdstown Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, with the same fish and rice dinner menu every evening, a ban on smoking indoors, a mobile-phone blackout, and no cable TV, the former enemies developed at least one thing in common - a sense of claustrophobia.
"We are making history, yes, but to tell you the truth," admitted one top Israeli negotiator with a sigh, "we are what you might call a little bored over here."
For the first three days of this historical gathering, the two sides barely exchanged a word. Busy arguing over which committee would begin work when, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his delegation held endless internal consultations, braved the chill to shoot some hoops on the outside basketball courts, and generally admitted to dreaming more of going home to Tel Aviv than of forging forth to Damascus.
The Syrians, meanwhile, were almost nowhere to be found. "I think they were told to stay in their rooms," offers one Israeli legal expert. "It feels like they won't even smile without permission from [Farouk al-]Sharaa." The Syrian foreign minister himself was spotted in the gym last Tuesday - but only after an aide confirmed that workout-aholic Israeli chief of staff Danny Yatom already left the premises.
The main informal meeting point between the delegations seemed to be the west wing elevators. "One Syrian general said to me, 'lobby please' but that is as far as it went," said an Israeli committee member, describing his significant interaction of the week. "It would probably be more fun with the Palestinians," mused another official. "I think we have more in common with them.... This is definitely a meeting between enemies of 50 years, not a gathering of cousins."
Comparing the dynamics of talks with the Palestinians with those taking place this week with the Syrians is a recurring theme. Participants in the 1993 Oslo negotiations now look back at those days with great nostalgia; the Wye River talks in 1998 are being called "fun," and not a few Israeli officials are claiming they sort of miss debating Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his entourage.
"There was an immediate personal connection with the Palestinians," says Uri Savir, Israel's top negotiator at the Oslo talks, and today a member of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. "We clicked. We discovered that we shared the same sense of humor, the same optimism, the same lack of formality. We come from the same place after all."
Mr. Savir recalls that on the first day in Norway, he went for a walk in the woods with top Palestinian negotiator Abu Allah. "We spoke about our families and our hopes, and he said, 'I have a feeling we can really make it.' I was moved. I knew it would all be all right then."
Taking off the rose-colored glasses, however, it is clear that breaking the ice with the Palestinians had its difficulties. Not 10 years ago, meeting with members of the PLO was considered a federal offense in Israel, and talks were often bitter. While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators often kiss each other these days before launching into negotiations, President Clinton, once upon a time, practically had to shove former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Mr. Arafat.
In Shepherdstown this week, the Americans again tried some gentle shoving, but to little avail. On arriving at the Clarion, the US teams nonchalantly moved into the first and fourth floors of the building - leaving the Syrians and Israelis squashed in between on the second and third hallways. "We were thinking," confided one US official, "that they would simply bump into each other and talk informally. But it does not seem to work that way."
The desired "click" in this case, the Americans soon found out, was more directly related to what was happening on the work floor. The ambiance at the hotel eventually did lighten up somewhat - but only as a consequence of progress in the talks.
Sharing juice, a nod
By last Tuesday night, when a compromise had been reached regarding the agenda, Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharaa found themselves in the Clarion's Wilmington Ball Room, sharing orange juice, nodding stiffly to one another, and making terse statements about moving the process along. The following morning the security committee, as well as the normalization team, sat down to begin work. Teams discussing the thorny issues of borders and water rights met informally Thursday and again on Saturday night. All the groups convened, officially, on Sunday.
By week's end, the US felt confident enough to come up with the first written working document - a seven-page draft that outlines the starting positions of each side. Before rushing home, Sharaa and Barak felt confident enough to spend a few moments chatting by the water cooler in the gym.
Someday, perhaps, they are all going to say it came naturally.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society