Israel-Syria talks cancelled indefinitely

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The Independent Online

Peace talks between Syria and Israel, which were due to resume in the United States tomorrow, lurched abruptly off course yesterday when the Israelis announced that negotiations had been postponed indefinitely.

Peace talks between Syria and Israel, which were due to resume in the United States tomorrow, lurched abruptly off course yesterday when the Israelis announced that negotiations had been postponed indefinitely.

A statement from the office of the prime minister, Ehud Barak, gave no reason for the postponement, and offered no clue over which side initiated it. But it followed heavy hints from Damascus that Syria was contemplating a delay in the next round of negotiations, which would have been the third since the Israel-Syria dialogue was reignited in December after nearly four years on ice.

Earlier in the day, Bill Clinton - mediator in the talks - had confirmed that a postponement was possible, but added that he was "convinced they both still want to do it. They're not as far apart as they might be."

Since the last session of talks, which ended in West Virginia just over a week ago, there has been no shortage of friction and posturing on both sides. Israel has been pushing for Syria's President Hafez el-Assad to take part personally, instead of delegating the task to his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara.

It has also shown impatience with Syria's apparent insistence that an agreement on total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a precondition for progress on any other front. "We went into these talks ready, of course, to discuss the structure of peace," complained David Levy, Israel's Foreign Minister, to Israel Radio. "If Syria believes that peace is only for Israel to come and say 'I am coming down from the Golan' that isn't peace. It is capitulation."

And Israel appeared to be irritated by Syria's earlier hints at postponement, which were viewed as an unwelcome effort to pressure it into agreeing to make a commitment to give back the Golan before further negotiations take place.

The Syrians have made clear that they want border issues to be discussed before others, such as security and water resources. They have been irked by suggestions that Jewish settlers should be allowed to stay on the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war, and later - to an international furore - annexed. They want the land back without its Israeli occupants.

Damascus was also purported to be annoyed by the leak of a US "working paper" from the last round of talks in Sheperdstown, West Virginia - which apparently outlined the framework of a treaty - to the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz. However, Syrian officials were widely suspected of earlier leaking information to an Arab paper in London during the Sheperdstown talks.

Further general stress has been placed on the process by continued conflict in south Lebanon; yesterday, after several days of Israeli assaults, Hizbollah forces killed a militiaman from the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. in the northern town of Hadera.

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