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Notes From Shepherdstown

It's not that Israelis and Syrians haven't sat down and conducted negotiations before. They have. But these are the first sustained talks between them in almost four years and follow several days of preparatory discussions in Washington last month.

Both sides have brought large delegations to this rural West Virginia location. Led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, the delegations include military & security experts to discuss Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and water experts to ensure Israel's water needs are met after returning the Golan.

The presence of the experts means that all the issues on the table -- withdrawal, security guarantees, water, normalization of relations and the timing of implementing any agreement -- can be discussed in detail.

Even noting the large number of experts, one Syrian foreign policy analyst cautions "don't expect any real progress... unless Israel says it's committed to full withdrawal." The Syrians want withdrawal discussed first, the Israelis prefer to talk about security guarantees and aspects of normalization to begin with and the Americans are trying to find a formula that covers the needs of both sides.

A State Department official says "no one is under any illusion that this will be either quick or easy." And State's spokesman, James P. Rubin, downplaying the prospect that this round of talks will end with a "core" agreement, told reporters that "we're at a time for decisions but those decisions don't get made in an instant."

No one knows how long this round will last, but the best guess is seven to ten days.


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by Charles Wolfson