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The Wonders Of Wye

The secluded retreat with its lush gardens, leaves of autumn gold, and flowing river seems more appropriate for lovers than for old foes.

But the Wye Plantation is nonetheless where the latest chapter of the rocky Arab-Israel peace process is taking place.

The Wye Plantation is located 70 miles away from the capital on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With the media a safe 15 minutes away, Netanyahu and Arafat will be able to conduct the business of peacemaking without interference from reporters.

The Clinton administration has decided to keep the talks off-limits to the press to maximize its chances for success. "You should not expect a substantive play-by-play of what's going on," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said. "We do not intend to have these discussions played out in the papers or on TV."

The 1,100-acre Wye River Conference Centers, owned by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, was chosen as the site of the meeting because of its remoteness from Washington and its comfortable atmosphere.

It's a strategy that has worked before. In 1977, the Carter administration brought together Israel and Egypt to negotiate for about 18 months, in seclusion, the Camp David peace accords. In 1993, Israelis and Palestinians held secret talks in Norway that produced the Oslo accords.

"Serious negotiations take place away from media spotlights. They focus on substance rather than slogans," said Ahmed Qureia, speaker of the Palestinian parliament, who took part in the Oslo talks.

Mustafa Khalil, Egypt's prime minister during the Camp David talks, said the format used at those meetings worked because the participants could not take their negotiations to the airwaves.

"Announcing to the world where they stood at every point in the negotiations would've made it hard for them to back down and reach a compromise," said Khalil.

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador to Washington who participated in failed talks with the Syrians in 1996 at the Wye Plantation, said it's better if the negotiators confront the public with a finished deal.

"There has to be secrecy in the sense that before you reach a breakthrough, you need to be able to make new decisions or change your mind without your own public or the opposition or your own partners who are fed by the media interfering in the negotiations," he said.

Those talks failed partly because of a series of bombings in Israel, blamed on Muslim militants.

The 1996 meetings between Israelis and Syrians at Wye offered an unprecedented opportunity for the two groups to live briefly under the same roof. Since the talks took place in the winter, the two sides were not inclined to take walks in the woods. But they had ample opportunity to fraternize in the library and living room and over shared meals.

"With the Syrians, there has been an absence for so long that the contact is very artificial and very difficult,"> said Rabinovich. "Just being together under the same roof at dinner was a big change and an important step forward."

He said the two parties meeting this week at the plantation have a few advantages the Israelis and Syrians did not have. One is the presence of the decision-makers, which will save negotiators traveling and communicating back and forth to update their leaders and get fresh instructions.

"I'm doubtful that in four or five days of seclusion at the Wye Plantation everything will be finished," said Rabinovich. "But it's to the good, there's no question. I hope they'll have plenty of walks in the woods."

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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