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The BBC's Hilary Andersson:
"Syrian wants commitment from Israel about withdrawal from the Golan Heights"
 real 28k

Monday, 17 January, 2000, 21:38 GMT
Syria talks on hold

Israeli soldiers gaze across the Golan Heights

Peace talks that were due to resume between Israel and Syria on Wednesday have been postponed.

Middle East
An Israeli Government spokesman said the length of the postponement was not known, but he made it clear that Prime Minister Ehud Barak would not be leaving for the next round in the United States on Tuesday.

The decision to postpone the talks followed hints that the Syrians were frustrated by the lack of progress towards a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The announcement by Mr Barak's office did not give a reason for the postponement, nor say whether it was at Syria's request.

Late-night summit

Shortly after the announcement of the delay, it was disclosed that Mr Barak was holding unscheduled talks with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in Tel Aviv.

The talks are focusing on the indefinite postponement of the next scheduled Israeli withdrawal from 6.1% of the West Bank, and on the negotiations to achieve agreement on the final status of the Palestinian territories, Israel radio reported.

Bulldozer 17,000 Israeli settlers might have to leave the Golan if it were returned

The Palestinians have bitterly criticised an announcement by Mr Barak postponing by three weeks the latest Israeli withdrawal, which had been due to take place on Thursday.

The final status talks, which started in November, have made little progress, and it appears unlikey that the two sides will manage to reach a framework accord by the agreed date of 13 February.

A Palestinian official told the French news agency Agence-France Press that the two leaders might discuss the possibility of a two-month postponement of that date, which was set at September's key Sharm al-Sheikh deal between the two sides.

Correspondents say there is concern in the Palestinian camp that their position would be further weakened by progress on the comparatively uncomplicated Syrian-Israeli track.

No blame

In a carefully worded statement, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright blamed neither the Israelis nor the Syrians for the postponement of their talks, saying only that "their approaches" to a document presented to them by the Clinton administration differed.

On Sunday, a Syrian official said a decision had not been made as to whether to return to the United States for the new round of talks.

Druze family Most Druze villagers left the Golan after the Israeli take over

The talks had been scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where they had paused on 10 January after a week.

Mr Barak had seemed unconcerned about any delay.

"If it isn't comfortable for the Syrians to come now, and they need some time, they should take the time," he said, before the postponement was announced.

Mr Barak has not ruled out withdrawing from most or all of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

But in return for a withdrawal, Israel wants security guarantees and control of fresh water resources.

Syria wants to start with a pledge from Israel that it will pull out of all of the Golan Heights and remove the 17,000 settlers who live there.

On Monday, Israel's chief rabbis ruled that the Golan Heights is part of the biblical land of Israel - a decision that could influence Israel's Orthodox Jews, who make up about 25% of the population, to vote against returning it in the referendum which Mr Barak has promised on any deal.

However, the Chief Rabbinical Council did not conclude that Jewish law forbids Israel from giving up the Golan Heights for peace.

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See also:
12 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Barak confident of Golan deal
11 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Israelis protest as talks end
11 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: The 'roadmap' to peace
16 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Palestinian anger at Israeli delay
10 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Israel divided over Golan Heights
05 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: Land, arms and security

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