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Clinton Administration Focuses On Palestinians in Peace Talks

By Charles Babington and Howard Schneider

Having failed to prod President Hafez Assad to soften his stand on negotiations with Israel, the Clinton administration will return the focus of Middle East peacemaking to the Palestinians in an attempt to bring new pressure on the Syrian leader, White House officials said Monday.

The goal, they said, is to isolate Assad and persuade him to be more accommodating with Israel on the main issues under negotiation -- such as the extent of Golan Heights land to be returned to Syria in a peace agreement and new arrangements for Israel to guarantee its security by monitoring Syrian military movements and communications.

Administration officials declined to discuss details of Clinton’s three-hour meeting with Assad in Geneva Sunday, after which the White House said it was impossible to predict when high-level talks between Syria and Israel might resume. They said, however, that the Syrian president’s reluctance involves substantive issues rather than more manageable matters, such as a timetable for negotiations or specific actions, sometimes called the “sequencing” question.

“It’s not just a matter of sequencing,” said a senior administration official. “These are substantive issues. ... It’s not obvious that those differences can be bridged.”

Now, as Clinton prepares to meet here Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the U.S. and Israeli focus shifts to the Palestinian talks, the official said, “It’s important that the Syrians reflect on what they heard.” He said Clinton did not offer his own plan in Geneva but described numerous conversations he has had with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak regarding his country’s concerns.

Another top White House aide who was in Geneva said Assad “is being very hard-line.” John D. Podesta, the White House chief of a staff, refused to detail the sticking points in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. He said in an interview, however, that the discussions “were full and specific,” suggesting Clinton and Assad covered such issues as where to draw boundaries if and when Syria regains control of the Golan Heights territory.

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa complained that Clinton mainly repeated Israel’s previous positions and sought flexibility from Assad to fulfill them.