Israel and Syria get serious in talks over Golan

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The Independent Online

Israel and Syria have at last begun serious discussions aimed at ending their animosity and sealing an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Israel and Syria have at last begun serious discussions aimed at ending their animosity and sealing an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

After some procedural spats, the negotiators were said to be meeting at a secluded hotel in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 70 miles from Washington DC. Whether the two sides can reach a deal is unlikely to be clear until the weekend.

The main issue for the Syrians is that Israel should withdraw from the areas of Syria it occupied in the 1967 war. But Israel argues the main issue is to guarantee its security, and only when both sides had agreed to talk about both issues simultaneously could the talks get under way.

Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and Syria's Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, met for one hour on Tuesday, after which President Bill Clinton - who is sponsoring the talks - held a reception for the officials. "We regarded the meeting as quite productive," said a State Department spokesman.

With so many tricky issues to negotiate, the US is playing down hopes that the meeting, expected to last a week, can reach a deal.

Israel is signalling that as well as the conventional security issues - early warning stations and guarantees - it wants Syria to distance itself from Iran and to disarm Hizbollah, the Islamic militia in Lebanon. "If someone seriously desires peace with us, he will have to break off alliances with people who to this day talk about destruction of Israel,'' said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defence minister.

Hizbollah is "the organisation with the most anti-Israel ideology which has ever existed. It is armed with very deadly weapons, and we cannot agree that it should be present with these weapons on our border or near it," Mr Sneh said.

Syria accuses Israel of a lack of good faith. "Those who believe that the Israeli side came to Shepherdstown with a clear peace plan that is consistent with international resolutions and the land-for-peace principle are wrong," said Sana, Syria's official news agency.

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