Clinton travels to meet negotiators for Israel and Syria as talks resume in West Virginia

 

Peace talks between Israel and Syria have resumed at a small town in West Virginia with signs that progress will be made towards a final settlement later in the year.

President Clinton flew by helicopter yesterday to Shepherds town, 70 miles west of Washing ton, to meet the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, and the Syrian Foreign Minister, Mr Farouq al-Shara, who lead the negotiating teams. His spokesman, Mr Joe Lockhart, told reporters the president believed the talks had got off to a good start. Mr Clinton is ready to return to the talks during the week, if necessary.

The US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, will remain in Shepherdstown to guide the talks, on which a strict news blackout has been imposed.

Mr Lockhart said "the President believes we can act as a facilitator, an honest broker".

The talks began last month with a day-long session in Washington to break the ice between Israel and Syria. A previous attempt at peace talks broke down four years ago following terrorist attacks in Israel.

The main issues to be resolved are the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, security for Israel, water rights and normalisation of relations, including the opening of embassies. Mr Barak has indicated that Israel is prepared to withdraw from the Golan, which overlooks northern Israel, but only in return for security guarantees.

The US is expected to offer financial aid to help resettle the 17,000 Israeli settlers on the Golan, which was seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr Barak has said he will submit any future settlement with Syria to a referendum but there is strong opposition among rightwing Israeli parties and opinion to giving back the Golan.

An Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon could also be part of a peace agreement as Syria has a large military presence in that country and has influence over the Hizbullah fundamentalist movement, which carries out regular attacks on Israeli troops.

As he left Israel for Washington, Mr Barak sounded a hopeful note, recalling that it was from the same Ben-Gurion airport that his predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, had departed for successful peace negotiations with Egypt and Jordan, respectively. Ms Albright cautioned on Sunday that there was "no done deal" yet between the two sides.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, in a radio interview on the way to Washington, said there were signs that Syria would agree to Israel's demands for trust-building measures. Israel would ask for the Syrian President, Mr Hafez Assad, to get involved in the talks to show he was serious about peace. Mr Assad rarely travels now because of frail health.

The Syrian newspaper al-Thawra, which reflects government thinking, said Syria is going into the talks with "open minds and a truthful desire to bring about a just and comprehensive peace".