Israel to resume peace talks with Syria in West Virginia

WASHINGTON — Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations will resume Jan. 3 at a hotel on the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a two-hour drive from Washington.

A State Department official said no concluding date had been fixed for the talks, which Israeli officials have said are expected to last roughly 10 days.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa will lead large delegations to the negotiations to discuss, in a committee format, all issues on the table including borders, water and security arrangements.

Sharaa, who was in Lebanon this week, told reporters Monday that an agreement between Israel and Syria would require an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 border, a demand he omitted in his public remarks in Washington during the first round of talks.

In organizing the next round of talks, officials had been searching for a setting close enough to Washington to allow maximum involvement of President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but isolated enough to facilitate intensive talks far from public scrutiny.

Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia, is on the eastern tip of the state in an area rich in Civil War history.

Media reports in Arab newspapers said Syria had rejected other landmark sites in Middle East diplomatic history, including Camp David, where Israeli-Egyptian peace talks were held, and Wye River Plantation, where Israeli-Palestinian negotiations took place last year.

Foreign Minister David Levy said Tuesday Israel hoped to clinch a framework agreement with the Syrians at the next round of talks.

"The hoped-for outcome would be an agreement, perhaps an outline or core agreement, which will set out the main points of an eventual final agreement," Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, told a gathering hosted by the Israel Policy Forum earlier this week.

He said prickly questions on territory would be decided after issues of security arrangements, water and the nature of a peace accord had been resolved.

The Syrians are unlikely to agree to the Israeli approach.

"The Syrians do not like surprises. They do not like interim agreements," said one Washington analyst.

By contrast, Israel has signed a framework agreement with the Palestinians. They also signed framework agreements with Egypt and Jordan before inking final accords.

Sharaa, in his first public comments since last week's talks with Israel in Washington, said Monday that Syria and Lebanon will only sign peace treaties with Israel together.

The Syrian foreign minister, who was in Beirut for discussions with the Lebanese government on the negotiations, also said he found Barak serious in his peace endeavors, but cautioned that the next round of negotiations will serve as a test of Israel's good intentions.

Sharaa said Syria is eager to see Lebanon's negotiations move simultaneously with its own, disclosing that Syrian President Hafez Assad has written to Clinton to inform him that "Syria and Lebanon have an understanding that no country will sign a peace agreement with Israel without the other.

"The peace track is one and the fate is one," he added.

Meanwhile, after at least 14 Lebanese elementary school children were injured by two stray South Lebanese Army mortar shells Dec. 16, residents of Kiryat Shmona and Israel's northern border communities prepared their shelters for possible Katyusha attacks. The IDF was on high alert despite the belief Syria will prevent any Hezbollah response because of the peace talks in Washington.

However, State Department spokesman James Foley said fresh prospects of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal could provoke terrorist acts against American targets.

"It is obvious that there are enemies of the peace process, those that do not want to see a final reconciliation and peace agreement between Israel and Israel's neighbors. And the enemies of peace have been known to act when they saw that there were prospects for a resolution of many of the political problems in the Middle East.

"The aim of terrorists is precisely to prevent us, to intimidate us, from playing such a role in the world. And we are not going to be intimidated," Foley told reporters.