Clinton, Barak Still Seek Resumption of Israeli-Syrian Talks

July 7, 2008 - 8:07 PM

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak are still working toward the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations despite the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit in Geneva to jump-start the peace talks.

Clinton is scheduled to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington Tuesday to discuss the impasse in the Israeli-Syrian talks. Mubarak is a main regional player in the negotiating process.

Barak said Tuesday Israel would exert every effort to restart talks with Syria, but the chances of reaching an agreement with Damascus soon were low.

Earlier, Barak told his One Israel faction that Syrian President Hafez Assad had "removed his mask," showing that he was "not ready to make the sort of decisions necessary for ... peace."

He nonetheless sounded a positive note, saying Israel had "not closed the door ... on the continuation of talks with the Syrians."

Barak held talks with Washington's Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, in Jerusalem twice on Monday. Ross, who was dispatched to brief Barak on the Geneva meeting, told reporters the Clinton administration would "continue to try and find the best way forward and continue to work with the parties and try and make headway."

Barak told Israel television the remaining disputes include Syria's insistence that Israel include Sea of Galilee shoreline in territory to be ceded, security arrangements, and Israel's early warning station on Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights.

Syria has insisted that an Israeli pullback from the Golan go all the way westward to the Galilee, from which Israel draws some 40 percent of its drinking water supply. Allowing the Syrians access to the lake means Israel would have to share resources already depleted by drought.

Barak has agreed to withdraw to the border as it stood before Israel's 1967 capture of the Golan - a ceasefire demarcation in place since 1949 - but excluding the shoreline.

Israel also wants extensive security guarantees and state-of-the art equipment in exchange for giving up the strategic asset of the high-lying territory.

Marla van Meter, spokesperson for the Golan Residents Council, said she was neither surprised nor overly excited by the failure of the weekend summit.

"No one wants peace to fail," Van Meter told CNSNews.com, adding that Israelis living on the Golan objected not to peace, but to the terms under discussion, in particular the surrendering of the Golan.

She said it was no surprise that Assad did not want peace, but only wanted the Golan Heights. "We as residents have to remain cautious while the Golan Heights are still on the table," she said.

Some 18,000 Israeli residents of the ridge stand to lose their homes and livelihoods if Israel cedes the territory to Syria in a peace deal.

Syrian newspapers said Tuesday that Damascus had not closed the door on talks with Israel, but was insisting that the U.S. play a more active role to pressure Israel to change its stance. Official media usually relay government policy in Syria.

In Geneva, reporters were told that Assad had reminisced to Clinton during their meeting that, prior to 1967, he had "held barbecues at the Sea of Galilee, swam in its waters, sat on its shores and eaten fish from it. I have no intention of giving it up."

An anonymous Syrian source close to the talks was quoted in wire reports as saying Assad was "not in a hurry" to make peace and had been "ready to wait all those years."

However, the pressure is mounting for a quick resumption of talks and a resolution of the issues. Israel has declared its intention to withdraw from south Lebanon by July whether or not it has an agreement with the Syrian-backed Lebanese government.

Lebanon and Syria have coordinated their positions - neither will sign a separate peace with Israel alone, and Lebanon will not agree to a quiet border after an Israeli withdrawal unless Israel also relinquishes the Golan to Syria.

Military experts have warned that attacks are likely to continue on targets within Israel once Israel withdraws from its "security zone" to the international boundary if there is no agreement on the Lebanese side to protect the border.