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18 januari 2000
SyriŽ staakt besprekingen met Israel. Artikel The Jerusalem Post
Syria puts talks on hold
By Janine Zacharia And Danna Harman (Jerusalem Post)
WASHINGTON (January 18) - Negotiations with Syria - originally scheduled to resume tomorrow in Shepherdstown, West Virginia - have been put off indefinitely, after Syria said it will not return to the table until Israel agrees to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 border.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a statement announcing the interruption in the talks: "At the end of the last round it was agreed that the Israeli-Syrian talks would resume on January 19. Both sides have since been reviewing the status of the talks and the draft working document. Presently their approaches to the next round differ and as a result there is going to be a delay.
"In the meantime, each side has agreed to send experts to Washington to meet us and to provide their comments on the draft." The teams of experts are due to arrive by the end of the week.
Asked if the peace talks are still on track, President Bill Clinton told reporters at an event marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day: "We're working on it. We're trying to figure out what the most effective way to go forward is. The good news is I am convinced they both still want to do it, and they're not as far apart... as they have been. But there's differences right now about what's the best way to go forward."
A senior US official, however, said the delay is "certainly not a step forward... Frankly, we could have insisted that the talks be held on Wednesday anyway, but that would not have been productive."
The major stumbling block seems again to be the agenda. The sides, since the end of the last round, have become "increasingly focused on having their most important needs solved first," the official said.
Barak's office confirmed he and the Israeli delegation will not leave for Washington today as planned.
Several officials stressed that the delay should not be seen as a crisis, and that negotiations could well resume in a matter of days. Barak leaves for a conference in Stockholm next week, and there is a strong possibility, according to these officials, that the Syrian track will move forward before then.
Syria, confirming the postponement of talks, said contacts are under way to set a new date.
"Contacts are under way among the parties involved to establish the necessary ground that would lead to progress in the next round of the Syrian-Israeli peace talks," a Syrian official told Reuters.
Late Sunday, the Syrians told the Americans they wanted some more time to think about progress in the negotiations, and the government - after first denying there were any problems - agreed to a break yesterday.
The Syrians were reportedly peeved both by the publication in Israel last week of the secret US working document and Barak's plan to leave the talks on Thursday to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Washington.
However, the main point holding up renewed talks seemed to be Barak's refusal to define the new border.
"We are now demanding a concrete review of the negotiations and that requires an undertaking by Israel to demarcate the border of June 4, 1967," Syrian state radio said in its daily commentary yesterday. "An Israeli refusal on this issue will prevent any progress being achieved by any of the other working groups and so a third round of talks would be useless."
At the last round in Shepherdstown, which finished up on January 10, four working groups convened to discuss the issues of normalization, security, water, and borders. The Syrians were angered that the border issue received only scant attention toward the end of the week-long summit.
Publication in Ha'aretz last week of an American summary of the sides' positions has led to some "posturing" on Syria's part, a State Department official said, but added that there is "real substance to the disagreement." To appease the Syrians, the US is striving to develop new procedures to prevent further leaks to the press.
A source close to Damascus said the Syrians insist they received an American promise in December that "the June 4 border would be given to them." The source added that, if it becomes clear in the next round that Barak is not committed to that promise and the Syrians go back empty-handed, "it will be the last meeting for a while."
In early December the US announced that talks would resume "where they left off" in 1996, leaving room to speculate exactly where that point was.
The Syrians say they were promised a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the June 4 border by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
According to the working draft document, Israel said it would agree to a new border based on the security and legal considerations of both sides and did not rule out the June 4 line, which still needs to be determined by experts.
"I am not particularly bothered by the Syrians' request" for a postponement, Barak said yesterday after appearing before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "If it is not convenient for them to meet now - fine. There are two sides to the talks.
"If it is not convenient for the Syrians to come now and they need time, then they should take the time. We will come when there are talks, and the delay does not bother us."
The talks with the Syrians are moving toward the critical point, Barak told the committee, adding that "next week we will know whether we are headed for an agreement or an impasse." No political commitments will be given until the negotiations ripen, he said.
Barak said the next round of talks is intended to be more "substantive, intensive, practical," and to deal less with principles.
If talks with Syria move into high gear, Barak said, the timetables with the Palestinians may have to be adjusted. At the same time, he said, within three weeks Israel will hand over another 6.1 percent of the West Bank. He said he does not believe Abu Dis will be included in the handover.
Barak denied reports that Israel asked Syrian President Hafez Assad to join the talks. He noted that Assad is "not exactly a person who leaves Syria every few days and wanders about." He said he believes Assad will join when the talks "ripen toward an agreement."
"I assume that at a certain point President Assad will be a part of the discussions, since we will not sign on an agreement with anyone other than him. I assume that we will also not decide on the most difficult questions without Assad," he added.
Barak told his cabinet Sunday that he intends to "give the Syrians more than they received" in the last round, but that he still does not plan to discuss specific border lines in this round. According to the official, Assad cannot afford to send his envoys to another round of talks without knowing that specific border issues will be discussed.
Others in the government were less subdued, voicing fear that the delay is an indication of troubled times to come. In a meeting with visiting Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama and European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, Foreign Minister David Levy said the Syrians are likely to miss "a golden opportunity" if they play games with the talks.