Israel and Syria agree to renew land negotiations

ISRAEL AND Syria are to resume their long-stalled peace talks in Washington next week in the hope of paving the way for a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement in coming months. The breakthrough was made by Bill Clinton yesterday at the start of a press conference at the US State Department, and confirmed immediately by the two countries concerned.

President Clinton said that the negotiations would resume from the point where they left off more than three years ago. But he did not disclose whether Israel had consented to hand back the Golan Heights, the disputed territory whose return Syria has made a condition of any agreement.

He also warned: "Israelis and Syrians still need to make courageous decisions to reach a just and lasting peace, but today's step is a significant breakthrough, for it will allow them to deal with each other face to face."

The Israeli ambassador in Washington welcomed the imminent resumption of talks, but regretted that the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, would not be taking part. Syria will be represented by its foreign minister, Farouk al-Shara. Two rounds of talks are planned; the first in Washington and the second at an as yet undecided venue in the Middle East.

Talks between Israel and Syria came to an abrupt end in 1996, after a wave of suicide bombings by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli premier. But five months ago there was a flurry of renewed optimism, partly because of the election of Ehud Barak, which led to reports that indirect contacts were underway again.

The biggest issue is the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which were seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and which - to worldwide condemnation - were, in effect, annexed by the Knesset.

Syria's President was adamant that before the collapse of talks in 1996, Israel's then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had agreed to hand back all of the Golan Heights.

Before returning to the table, the Syrians wanted the Barak administration to stick by this commitment. But the Israelis said the offer had been hypothetical, and accused President Assad of trying to impose unreasonable conditions before talks had even resumed.

Last night it was unclear whether this conflict was resolved during the break-through visit to Damascus and Israel this week by Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, which presaged the resumed talks. An aide to Mr Barak said that there were "no pre-conditions".

Welcoming the announcement, a statement from Syria reported that Mr Clinton had said talks would resume "from the point where they left off." The odds are that it is still unsolved. Add to this several other mighty issues, such as an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and Syria's desire to acquire a strip of land down to the banks of the Sea of Galilee, and it becomes clear that the new talks will be tough going.

For Mr Barak, in particular, it is a path strewn with domestic perils; he has emphasised that peace with Syria will mean "painful concessions".

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, far from a close friend of President Assad's,welcomed the news despite speculation that Mr Clinton's keenness to win a trophy in the Middle East before leaving office will mean the Israel-Syria peace track takes precedence over that of the Palestinians.

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