No handshaking yet for Israeli and Syrian leaders

WASHINGTON — Although Israel and Syria sat down this week for the highest level of peace talks ever, the two sides were not ready for a handshake.

Gathered at a White House ceremony to launch their historic talks Wednesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa resisted calls from reporters to link hands for the cameras.

The resistance showed that despite their stated intentions to end 50 years of war and enmity, there is still a long way to go.

Still the mood was optimistic.

Against a backdrop of the American, Israeli and Syrian flags and under an overcast sky, President Clinton said a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world was in sight "for the first time in history."

"What we are witnessing today is not yet peace," Clinton said of the two days of talks between the longtime foes. "And getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path."

Barak, during very brief remarks, said Israel is "determined to do whatever we can" to bring about a better future for the entire Middle East.

"We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace," Barak said.

"We are fully aware of the opportunity, of the burden of responsibility and of the seriousness, determination and devotion that will be needed in order begin this march together with our Syrian partners to make a different Middle East where nations are living side by side in peaceful relationships and mutual respect and good neighborliness."

Sharaa, who delivered a more combative and longer speech, clearly used the occasion to underscore Syria's positions before the talks began, stressing that "no one should ignore what has been achieved until now."

That comment was a reference to Syria's position that the government of Yitzhak Rabin agreed during the last round of talks nearly four years ago to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights. Israel has maintained that the offer was hypothetical to see what level of normalization and security arrangements Syrian President Hafez Assad would offer in return.

However, in laying out Syria's demands, Sharaa also acknowledged the needs of the Israelis.

"It goes without saying that peace for Syria means the return of all its occupied land, while for Israel, peace will mean the end of the psychological fear which the Israelis have been living in as a result of the existence of occupation, which is undoubtedly the source of all adversities and wars," Sharaa said.

"Hence, ending occupation will be balanced for the first time by eliminating the barrier of fear and anxieties, and exchanging it with a true and mutual feeling of peace and security."

Saying that Assad announced many years ago that "peace is the strategic option of Syria," Sharaa suggested that Syria was looking to open itself up to the world. Peace in the region, he said, "may usher in a dialogue of civilization and an honorable competition in various domains — the political, cultural, scientific and economic."

Sharaa also said that "peace will certainly pose new questions to all sides, especially for the Arab side, who will wonder after reviewing the past 50 years, whether the Arab conflict was the one who solely defied Arab unity or the one which frustrated it."

Senior Clinton administration officials told reporters Tuesday that the two days of talks will mostly focus on when the more intensive negotiations will begin and how those talks will be structured.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, who briefed reporters late Wednesday afternoon as the talks continued, described the talks as "a breakthrough" and "serious" while only giving scant details.

In his speech, Sharaa said the views in the West that Syria was the aggressor before the outbreak of war in 1967 "carry no grain of truth in them."

Asked what the president's reaction was to Sharaa's statement, Lockhart said, "There were long-held and previously stated views that were articulated again."

He added that there some new statements from Sharaa that suggested "a spirit of reconciliation and potential."