(CNSNews.com) - With President Clinton mediating, Syria headed into a fresh round of talks with Israel on Monday with "open minds and a truthful desire" for peace. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he felt the "burden of responsibility" to
reach an agreement this year.
Clinton, who has made Mideast peace a top foreign policy goal for 2000, cleared his schedule to preside over the first day of negotiations at the semi-secluded Clarion Hotel and Conference Center just outside Shepherdstown, WVA, 70 miles northwest of Washington.
"The president understands we have an historic opportunity here," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "The president believes we can act as a facilitator, as an honest broker, as we have in the past."
After today's sessions, Lockhart said, "We're going to take it day to day. At the end of the week, we'll take stock of where we are."
According to wire service reports, Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa were expected to focus on four key issues during the talks: security, the normalization of relations, water rights and how much of the strategic Golan Heights Israel would return to Syria.
In Damascus, about 50 protesters, mostly university students, staged a sit-in at the offices of the International Committee for the Red Cross, denouncing Israel and demanding the release of Syrian prisoners in Israeli jails.
"There can be no peace as long as Israel keeps our men imprisoned," said Maymouna al-aqet, whose two brothers have been jailed in Israel since 1985.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who will be closeted with the Israelis and Syrians throughout the negotiations, cautioned Sunday that there is "no done deal" yet between the two sides, who have fought three wars since Israel's founding in 1948.
"We all understand how fateful the decisions are," Albright said in an interview with The Associated Press in Washington. "We are at the beginning of a process here, not at the end of it."
Albright said there may have to be additional rounds of negotiations to achieve a final settlement, knocking down any notion that all that remains is to dispose of some details.
But she added that Barak and al-Sharaa, as well as Syrian President Hafez Assad, were "dedicated to making this work" after 50 years of enmity.
As he left for Washington, Barak said Sunday he felt the "burden of responsibility" to achieve an agreement within the year. "We don't need to wait for another millennium, another century or even another 10 years to find a way to make peace with our neighbors," he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel's Army radio during the flight to Washington that there were signs that Syria would agree to Israel's demands for trust-building measures. At the same time, he said Israel would ask Assad to join the talks to prove he was serious about peace.
Assad rarely appears in public, even at home, and his trips abroad are even rarer. Al-Sharaa is a close, trusted aide and has represented Syria in previous negotiations with the Israelis.
Syrian news media, which reflect government thinking, said Damascus pins great hopes on the upcoming negotiations. Al-Thawra newspaper said Syria heads into the talks with "open minds and a truthful desire to bring about a just and comprehensive peace."
Talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 1996 following a series of suicide bombings in Israel. The talks were revived in Washington last month.
Assad wants to recover the Golan Heights, a border enclave that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War, in exchange for peace with the Jewish state.
Barak has indicated he is prepared to give up some land but has not said whether he was willing to meet Assad's demand for territory all the way to the Sea of Galilee, the storehouse of Israel's valuable water supplies. Security is a prime issue for the Israelis.
A breakthrough in the negotiations would lead to an agreement between Israel and Lebanon since Syria controls Lebanon's foreign policy.
In addition to the Israeli and Syrian track, Clinton is pressing for a resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians to implement the Wye River peace accords, over which he presided in October 1998.
Meanwhile, residents of Shepherdstown prepared for the talks and the influx of some 1,000 people -- mainly State Department staff and journalists.
About 50 people -- Christians, Muslims and Jews -- gathered for prayers Saturday at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church to bless the talks. The church will open its doors every day at noon during the negotiations for special prayers.
Pam Berry, a bakery owner, made pastries, muffins, cookies and a couple of apple pies Sunday for the participants.
And the town's small museum -- which usually is open only from April to October -- planned to unlock its doors to educate visitors about the town's more than 250-year history.
Berry said a State Department official warned business owners at a meeting last week to expect a lunch and dinner rush that will last all hours of the day. "The Shepherdstown Business Association decided it will be business as usual, but with more volume," said Berry. "There won't be a lot of hoopla."