Israel and Syria to resume peace talks

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The Independent Online
Syria and Israel are to resume formal peace talks for the first time in more than a year after a diplomatic breakthrough by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in Damascus last night.

The decision is a boost for the American-sponsored Middle East peace negotiations, opening the way to a possible peace treaty between Israel and Syria to match those concluded with Jordan and Egypt. It came after Mr Christopher held intensive meetings with Syria's President Hafez al- Assad and the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. "It is common ground between the two leaders that time is urgent, that we need to move," the Secretary of State said.

Syria broke off formal contacts in February 1994 after the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank town of Hebron by an extremist Jewish settler. Although behind-the-scenes contact continued, the negotiating process appeared deadlocked. In the meantime, Islamic militants - privately loathed as much by Syria's secular regime as by the Israeli government - gained significant ground among Palestinian and Arab opinion.

The agreement means ambassadors from Syria and Israel will meet openly in Washington under American auspices - within days. A senior State Department official, Denis Ross, will return to the Middle East to conduct parallel talks with Syrian and Israeli officials.

Mr Christopher had gone to the Syrian capital for a lengthy discussion over the terms of a set of modified proposals from Israel. President Assad gave his assent, in principle, to resuming talks and Mr Christopher worked out details with the Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.

Informal negotiations between the two key foes in the Arab-Israeli conflict reached chief-of-staff level last year but ran into a stalemate over the timing and extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Mr Rabin confirmed Israel had modified its stance but described the change as "not significant," indicating it centred on security arrangements in the disputed territory.

Israel's right-wing opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he "had no doubt" the Prime Minister was prepared to give up the whole of the Golan, while the Israeli media predicted rapid negotiations on a phased withdrawal and complex security guarantees.

The shift in Syrian expectations was marked by Damascus Radio. On Sunday, it denounced "the marketing of optimism" and "worn out ideas, unrealistic proposals and conditional or defective visions," claiming Mr Christopher's mission was unlikely to achieve anything.

On Monday it quoted with approval the state-run newspaper Tishrin, which said "Syria ... is extremely anxious to see the current US political efforts bear fruit and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace".

Mr Rabin said yesterday that four areas needed clarification: the frontier line, a withdrawal timetable, security arrangements and a test period to review the normalisation of relations.

Syria is sticking to a formula of "full withdrawal in exchange for a full peace".

But in a sign that even President Assad's legendary patience may be running short, the Tishrin editorial warned "Peace in the Middle East is at a dangerous crossroads: either substantial progress is made within the next few weeks and months, or there will be a new retreat that will make any talk of peace a waste of time."