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U.S. To Urge Syria-Israel Pact

When peace talks resume Monday between Israel and Syria in Shepherdstown, W. Va., the Clinton administration will be leaning on both sides to finally resolve their bitter dispute over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

The stakes are high for the region and for President Clinton, who is scheduled to open the new round of talks that resumed in Washington two weeks ago after a three and a half-year impasse.

Clinton, pressing for a land-for-peace deal, has made Mideast peace a top foreign policy goal for 2000.

Syria's government newspaper, Tishrin, warned in an editorial on Saturday that failure of the talks could lead to "severe tension in the region and to turbulence that would negatively affect the world's peace." An Israeli political commentator, Ehud Yaari, predicted "extremely tough bargaining" in the West Virginia college town.

The meeting site, about 90 miles from Washington, was chosen in the tradition of Camp David and Wye River, Md., both for its semi-seclusion and its proximity to the capital.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the senior U.S. mediator Dennis B. Ross, are expected to be at the talks for as long as they last.

Clinton, who got his feet wet in active Mideast diplomacy with late-night bargaining with Israel and the Palestinians at Wye River in October 1998, is scheduled to open the talks Monday and could get involved in the details later.

Beyond the talks, peace would come with a price tag of billions of dollars for new security arrangements on the Israel-Syria border and possibly to help evacuate the 18,004 who live on the vital Golan Heights that Prime Minister Ehud Barak seems ready to turn over to Syria.

The United States would pay a key role in organizing funding, but Congress would have to approve any extra U.S. spending. Syria is ineligible for most U.S. assistance now because it is one of seven nations the State Department has branded as a supporter of terrorism.

"There is a lot of work ahead of us and while there is a desire to work very hard, everybody knows the road ahead is not an easy one," Albright said at the end of a first, inconclusive round in Washington Dec. 16. "We are looking forward to an intensive round."

Over the last quarter century, the United States has played a constant and active role in mediating between Israel and the Arabs. Always denying any pressure was being applied to either side, succeeding administrations never made a secret of their support for Israel surrendering land to the Arabs in exchange for peace pledges.

Israel has relinquished Sinai to Egypt, part of the West Bank and all of Gaza to the Palestinians and a sliver of land to Jordan. The Palestinians are demanding the rest of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem.

In this case, Syria is insisting on recovering the Golan Heights plateau that it lost in the 967 war. It has served as a buffer for Israel. In exchange, President Hafez Assad is offering peace, with terms still to be spelled out.

In 1998 negotiations that produced a partial Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank, Clinton engaged in detailed diplomacy and mediator Ross composed much of the accord.

"It can be an opportunity to pressure the Syrians because they are panting after a relationship with the United States," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The United States is more of a player than in the Israeli-Palestinian talks because an agreement is likely to call on the United States to do a variety of things, some of them controversial," Clawson said at the private research group.

Ted Galen Carpenter, of the private Cato Institute, said he did not object to the United States playing the role of mediator or honest broker for peace.

"But I do object to the U.S. bankrolling possible political agreements and inadvertently funding a growing malaise of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, as we did in Egypt, and which, I suspect, we will do eventually with regard to Syria and possibly Lebanon," he said in an interview.

Jon B. Alterman, analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said one problem in Middle East peacemaking is the parties always want highest U.S. participation.

In the Syrian-Israeli talks, Alterman said, "I sense Clinton would like to come in as a closer, but not get into a Wye situation (the West Bank accord last year) where he has to negotiate every comma and semicolon."

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