Israel and Syria upbeat after talks

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Jerusalem - Israel and Syria were upbeat yesterday after their first week of peace talks in six months, but said they had yet to forge a deal. The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, told his cabinet of "understandings reached with the Syrian representatives on a number of issues", a cabinet communique said.

Israeli and Syrian representatives met for three days near Washington for their first negotiations since the breakdown in June of talks on security arrangements for the Golan Heights. Syria's chief negotiator, Walid al-Mualem, was quoted by Syria's Sana news agency as saying that the two sides discussed a number of issues "with clarity and seriousness". But he added: "No final understanding was reached on any of the subjects which were discussed."

An Israeli official said that because of progress, the sides agreed to stay over the weekend rather than report back to their respective governments. The talks resume this week.

Israel and Syria have failed to make progress in four years of negotiations. Damascus demands that the Israelis withdraw from the Golan Heights. Jerusalem insists on full peace ties and security arrangements on the strategic plateau it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

An Israeli cabinet minister said on Saturday that rocket attacks on northern Israel, launched from Lebanon on Friday, had raised doubts about Syria's intentions in peace talks. But there was no hint of that view in the weekly cabinet communique or at a briefing by an Israeli official.

The communique quoted Mr Peres as restating Israel's long-standing policy linking the depth of an Israeli withdrawal to the extent of peace promised by Syria. A government official said the Prime Minister, who has made a deal with Syria a top priority since taking over in November from the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, also linked the timetable for a withdrawal to the speed with which peace is enacted, saying: "He won't agree to a slow peace and a fast, quick withdrawal."

The Syrians had shown some understanding for Israel's demand for economic arrangements in a peace deal, the official said. Israel has said it wants trade and tourism with Syria. The two sides, he added, had agreed to hold more comprehensive talks than in the past. "If we have a problem on a specific issue, we can still make progress on the other issues," he said.