US stays cautious on Mid-East peace prospects

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The Independent Online
AS TOP Israeli and Syrian officials arrived in Washington to resume their long-stalled peace talks, US officials moved swiftly to quash speculation that a deal had already been done that could pave the way for a comprehensive Middle East peace. The National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, said that 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,' she said.

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 held four years ago in Spain left off, on the question of security guarantees. The central issue is Syria's demand for the return of the strategically important Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Syria has made their return a precondition of any further agreement. As late as yesterday, the precise timetable and structure of the talks appeared not to have been decided. They are expected to be held behind closed doors, at President Clinton's insistence.

If this week produces a framework for agreement, lower-level talks will continue at a venue still to be announced, probably still in the United States. The original plan to reconvene the talks in the Middle East, perhaps in Oman, appears to have been shelved. Mr Clinton has made no secret of his hope for a peace agreement before he leaves office in 14 months.

This would allow him to leave behind a signal diplomatic achievement, but also to claim completion of the process begun by Jimmy Carter, the Democratic President before him.

Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, enters the negotiations with a bulging dossier of issues: he will want assurances that Syria will use its influence to try to end Hizbollah attacks on Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon; and an agreement on water, economic relations, early warning systems, embassies, and more.

Syria's position is clearer. Above all else, it wants the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed. And it wants all of it. What is less obvious is - why now?

President Hafez al-Assad may simply be acting to counter pressure from Mr Barak and Bill Clinton to return to the table. The Syrian leader knows from past 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, President al-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.

t Israel yesterday revealed that two Hamas militants, who were killed by Israeli commandos in a shoot-out on the West bank on Monday night, had long been singled out for death. The unusually publicadmission came from Israel's deputy defence minister, Efraim Sneh. One of the men is believed by the Israelis to have shot dead a border policeman last year.

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