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Tuesday, 11 January, 2000, 04:19 GMT
Washington's 'roadmap' to peace

The main players over dinner on Sunday
By Washington correspondent Richard Lister

Anyone hoping that the past week of talks in Shepherdstown might have closed with handshakes on the White House lawn, broad smiles from old enemies and a signing ceremony for a historic peace deal, was always going to be disappointed.

One round of talks does not a treaty make - especially when those doing the talking are Israel and Syria.

Middle East
But while the talks may have lacked edge-of-your-seat drama and momentous decision-making, US officials say they were vital in creating a "roadmap" for the two sides, as they head warily towards peace.

That roadmap is essentially an American document - seven pages long - which outlines all the progress made by the two sides, both in the previous talks which ended in March 1996, and over the past week in Shepherdstown.

It also sets out the two sides' positions on the main issues and the steps necessary to complete a deal.

Who blinks first

Four joint negotiating committees were also set up, each of which is responsible for a different core issue; the final border between Israel and Syria after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the security of the two countries in the wake of that withdrawal (although this is chiefly an Israeli concern), water resources and the establishment of "normal peaceful relations" between two countries which have fought three wars since the 1940s.




In a sense, that was the easy part. Now that a framework for talks is in place the two sides are expected to start trying to narrow their differences on all of the issues, and, as with this round of talks, the next round on 19 January - in a venue near Washington yet to be decided - is also going to have to overcome the problem of "who blinks first".

In Shepherdstown, the central argument was over the order in which the committees should meet. Israel said Security and Normalisation first, Syria said Borders, the US said how about simultaneous talks?

That - fairly symbolic - hurdle was passed with a complex compromise which saw informal talks on Borders followed by full face to face discussions on Security.

All the committees met by the end of the talks, but by most accounts they did little more than exchange long-held views, with few new ideas.

Face-to-face

Moving beyond that phase will almost certainly require further face-to-face meetings between Mr Barak, Mr al-Sharaa and President Clinton, and the question of priorities will not be fudged so easily when it comes to actually deciding on the extent of a Golan withdrawal and how Syria proposes to make Israelis feel safe about the prospect.

President Clinton has indicated that he thinks a deal may be possible within two months, a comment which is certainly aimed at quickening the pace of the process. But all sides have a vested interest in an agreement sooner rather than later.

President Assad of Syria, because he is not getting any younger, and wants it to be part of his legacy; Mr Clinton because he wants it to be part of his; and Mr Barak, because those factors make the moment ripe for peace with Syria.

The will appears to be there, and the Americans are doing as much as they can to create the way, but the "how" is up to the Israelis and the Syrians, and they have a long way to go before that handshake on the lawn becomes a reality.

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See also:

10 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Media optimistic over Mid-East talks
10 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Washington's push for peace
03 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: Golan the key
05 Jan 00 |  Middle East
The Golan: Territory and security
10 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Clinton: Mid-East deal in months

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