Hopes rise for peace deal with Syria over Golan Heights



Washington - Israeli and Syrian negotiators ended three days of US-mediated talks yesterday, hailing progress on key disputes between them.

The US special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, said: "All three delegations believe that the discussions were fruitful, constructive and practical. A good start was made in developing a general basis for progress on substance and on the procedures for dealing with the main issues."

Mr Ross warned, however, that "there is still a great deal of work to be done and gaps to be bridged".

Chief Israeli and Syrian negotiators, in interviews with their respective official media, were also upbeat about the talks - three days last week and three days this week - at the Wye Conference Centres outside Washington.

The Israeli representative, Uri Savir, told Israel Television: "I have less doubt than before that the Syrians indeed are committed to arriving at a peace, a real peace as the Syrians define it." The two sides reached "understandings on certain subjects but there is no real agreement in any subject, because that was not the aim. The goal was to understand one another better."

The Syrian negotiator, Walid al-Mualem, voiced the first official mention by Damascus of the possibility of substantial progress in the four-year- old talks. "As a result of the talks," he told the official Syrian news agency, "it was found that progress could be achieved in substance regarding the basic issues, despite the existence of difficulties and gaps on some of the basic elements of peace".

He said negotiations covered the main issue of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This was a breakthrough because Israel previously refused to discuss the scope of its withdrawal until Syria clarified terms of its peace offer. The discussions also covered establishing normal peacetime relations, security arrangements and an implementation timetable, the Syrian negotiator said.

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, will build on these talks in meetings next week with President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus and the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres.

The talks have been stuck over Syria's insistence on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war, and Israel's demands for normal relations and security arrangements.

Both sides have shown new interest in peace since the November assasination of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli opponent of moves to trade land for peace.

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