Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) Israeli-Syrian peace talks, stalled for more than three years, are due to resume in Washington next week, President Clinton said last night in an announcement which shocked Israelis when they heard the news early Thursday.
Calling the current situation a "pivotal moment in the Middle East peace process," Clinton announced that negotiations between Israel and Syria would resume next week "from the point where they left off."
The point where the talks "left off" is a crucial issue: Syria says that when negotiations broke off in 1996, it had secured a promise from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israel would relinquish the entire Golan Heights. Israel denies the claim. Spokesmen for the Israeli and Syrian leaders claim neither has backed down.
In a televised address, Clinton said Israel and the Syrians would need to make "courageous decisions" in order to reach a peace agreement. He said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara would meet in Washington next week.
"After an initial round for one or two days, they will return to the region, and intensive negotiations will resume at a site to be determined soon thereafter. These negotiations will be high level, comprehensive, and conducted with the aim of reaching an agreement as soon as possible," Clinton said.
The announcement is being hailed as a triumph in Syria. An official response from the Syrian President Hafez Assad said that Syria welcomed the announcement and that Clinton and Assad had spoken by phone and expressed determination to reach a final agreement.
Official Syrian state-run radio emphasized that the talks were to begin where they were broken off nearly four years ago and said that Assad had made no concessions in order to enter into the talks.
Assad has maintained that he was ready to resume talks any time provided they pick up where they left off in March 1996. According to Assad at that point he had been given a pledge for a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. Israel denied every having made such a pledge and said that starting talks at that point would be tantamount to imposing preconditions on the talks.
Sources in the Barak's office were quoted as saying that there were no preconditions agreed to in advance of talks and certainly no agreement to concede the entire Golan Heights.
"We always believed there was no reason not to renew talks. Barak remained firm in his stand that there would be no preconditions and all that was needed was the okay from Assad," an official said.
After a briefing with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Wednesday, Barak vowed to protect Israel's security interests.
"Believe me, I spent all my life in uniform defending this country. I happened even to participate in the taking over of the Golan Heights originally in '67 and I will not sign any agreement that will not, to the best of my judgement, strengthen Israel rather than weaken it," Barak told reporters.
But he also promised "painful compromises" on Israel's part in order "to achieve peace in every single track."
However, lawmaker Danny Naveh, challenged the prime minister's word.
"The prime minister does not have the courage to say to the public that the meaning of this is a withdrawal from the Golan. He would rather leave us in euphoria than tell us the price," Naveh said, speaking on behalf of the opposition Likud party.
The Golan Residents Committee expressed its shock over the announcement. Spokesperson Ramona Bar-Lev told CNSNews.com the committee had no advance warning from Barak about the resumption of talks.
"Its amazing that our own Prime Minister didn't tell us about it," Bar-Lev said. According to the GRC, Barak promised in July to give Golan residents advance notice of any resumption of talks with the Syrians.
"Now the question is of what was agreed upon," Bar-Lev continued, noting that Clinton said talks would resume where they left off. "As far as we know Assad was firm in his stand about where the talks left off, so we have to check it out."
There are some 18,000 Israelis living in communities on the Golan Heights who would stand to lost their homes, farms, factories and businesses if the territory was ceded to Assad.
Bar-Lev said the GRC would later Thursday discuss putting together a campaign. She declined to reveal any of the details but said the committee believed "public opinion is in favor of maintaining Israeli sovereignty over the Golan."
The announcement came as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrapped up a day and a half of talks, which had included meetings with Assad in Damascus, Barak in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Ram'Allah.
Arafat welcomed the news of resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, and Albright stressed that movement on the Syrian track would not push negotiations with the Palestinians aside.
After his talks with Albright, Arafat agreed to continue in permanent status negotiations with Israel.
Analysts have said Clinton is looking to wrap up a comprehensive Middle East peace deal as part of his eight-year legacy as president before his term ends in about a year.