Israeli-Syrian peace talks recently concluded in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
For Israelis and Syrians, bitter enemies and in a perpetual state of war for more than fifty years, it was a start down the road called peace.
In eight days of talks, the President made five trips to West Virginia, several times meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, and bringing them together for three-way meetings on two occasions.
When Mr. Clinton was not on hand, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright held things together, pushing both sides, taking Mr. Barak on a tour of the nearby Civil War battlefield at Antietam, Maryland and separately hosting both leaders at her weekend retreat in Hillsboro, Virginia.
Even after a week of talks and a concerted effort by the State Department to get the negotiating teams to relax, this round was marked more by formality and separation than by informality and interaction. State Department spokesman James Rubin called encounters between Israelis and Syrians "cordial" and "businesslike." Early in the week he said things were not "warm and fuzzy." By week's end, Rubin said We're on a warming trend but I don't want to overstate it."
One Syrian source close to the delegation said the Americans were trying to get people into blue jeans and t-shirts. He then noted some of the Syrians, not known for their informality, had never owned a pair of blue jeans.
At mid-week the Americans offered both sides what they called a "working document," a seven page paper meant to summarize the positions of both sides, noting areas of agreement and disagreement. Spokesman Rubin conceded it was possible the document could end up being the "starting point" for an eventual peace treaty.
This round of talks also saw expert-level committees established to work on the four main issues: borders, normal peaceful relations, security arrangements and water. By week's end, all of the committees had met at least once.
On the fringes, there were informal discussions by all the parties, but very little got done without American negotiators sitting between Israelis and Syrians. Often it was Americans meeting with one side, then carrying a response back to the other side.
As the State Department's James Rubin put it: "We recognize these are fateful decisions for Israel and SyriaÂ We don't expect it to be resolved overnight, but over time."
The next round of talks is scheduled for Jan. 19th, somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area.
by Charles Wolfson