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Israel and Syria Commence U.S.-Brokered Peace Talks

By Norman Kempster

The Los Angeles Times -- Shepherdstown, w. va

Admonished by the Clinton administration that they face “a historic opportunity that may not come again,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa opened a conference Monday aimed at ending half a century of war and animosity.

But the meeting almost immediately hit a snag when an anticipated face-to-face session between Barak and al-Sharaa failed to occur. Instead, the Israeli and Syrian leaders spent the day in separate meetings with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

U.S. officials had said that a three-way meeting of Barak, al-Sharaa and Clinton was expected after dinner Monday. But about four hours after the anticipated start of the session, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the direct talks had been postponed. He did not indicate when they would be held.

Rubin said the issues were too complex to permit a “fully scripted” meeting. “It simply did not pan out,” he said of the three-way meeting.

The talks began with Barak and al-Sharaa meeting separately for about an hour each with Clinton, a procedure that emphasized the pivotal role assigned to the U.S. government in bringing together the Middle East rivals.

But instead of moving to the expected three-way meeting, the participants held a series of additional U.S.-Israeli and U.S.-Syrian talks. The only time Barak and al-Sharaa were together was during a brief walk in the woods shortly after Clinton arrived from Washington.

Rubin and White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart insisted that U.S. mediators still expect direct talks between the Israelis and the Syrians. Lockhart told reporters, “I wouldn’t interpret it one way or the other. The schedule is very fluid.”

Israel and Syria had never met at such a high political level before last month.

At the same time, Lockhart said it was “quite unrealistically optimistic” to believe that Israel and Syria can achieve even the outline of a peace agreement in a single round of talks.