US cautious on Mid-East peace negotiations

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AS ISRAELI and Syrian officials arrived in Washington to resume long-stalled peace talks, US officials moved to quash speculation that a deal had already been done that could pave the way for a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Sandy Berger, National Security Adviser, said the solutions were not self-evident. "There have been negotiations in the past that have not succeeded over the same issues. One should not underestimate the degree of difficulty here."

While the official mood was cautious, simply getting an Israeli prime minister and a Syrian foreign minister around the same negotiating table was an achievement without precedent in Middle East conflict. The talks are supposed to resume where lower-level talks four years ago in Spain left off, on security guarantees. The central issue is Syria's demand for return of the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Syria has made their return a precondition of any further agreement. Yesterday the timetable and structure of the talks appeared not to have been decided. They are expected to be held behind closed doors, at President Bill Clinton's insistence.

If this week produces a framework for agreement, lower-level talks will continue, probably still in the United States. The original plan to reconvene the talks in the Middle East appears to have been shelved. Mr Clinton has made no secret of his hope for an agreement before he leaves office, which would allow him to claim completion of the process begun by Jimmy Carter, the Democratic president before him.

Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, will want assurances that Syria will use its influence to try to end Hizbollah attacks on Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon and agreements on water, economic relations, early- warning systems, embassies and more.

Syria above all wants the return of the Golan Heights and it wants all of it. What is less obvious is why now? President Hafez al-Assad may be acting to counter pressure from Mr Barak and Mr Clinton to return to the table. The Syrian leader knows from experience that Syria will be blamed by the West as the spoiler if it fails to do so.

But it also may be that, at 69, Mr Assad's thoughts are turning to his place in history. He was defence minister when the Golan was lost to Israel in 1967, displacing tens of thousands of Syrians.

Securing the return of the 744 square miles of strategically valuable and symbolically priceless land would finally remove this blot from his record. Some 20,000 Syrians share the occupied land with 17,000 Israeli settlers; returning the area to Damascus's fold would add still more decibels to the Syrian applause.

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