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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Syrian-Israeli Talks Friendly, But Peace Elusive

WASHINGTON -- As Syria and Israel reopen peace negotiations, the two sides are striking a friendly stance while admitting that a peace agreement remains elusive.


The State Department, hosting the closed talks on Maryland's Eastern Shore, said Tuesday it was encouraged by last week's first round of sessions at the Wye Plantation conference center.


Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich said he is convinced that Syria is interested in peace. He also said that Secretary of State Warren Christopher's planned trip to the Middle East next week is likely to be more significant than today's resumption of talks.


"We have a fresh effort to redefine the contours and arrange for mutual acceptance," Rabinovich said in an interview. "This may work."


In Jerusalem, Israel Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said he is optimistic, but doesn't expect a declaration of principles to result from this round.


"My feeling is that it is too early," Barak said. "There is a need to look further into the meaning of peace and the nature of normalization, what it means to establish relations."


Syria wants Israel to cede all the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed, in exchange for a peace agreement. Israel says the depth of withdrawal will depend on the quality of the peace that Syria offers in return.


A key stumbling block has been Israel's insistence on ground-based early warning stations in the Golan Heights after an Israeli withdrawal, which Syria views as an infringement of its sovereignty.


Israeli and Syrian negotiators met for three days last week with American mediators at the private conference center near Queenstown, Maryland, and had further exchanges over the weekend in the Washington area.


Additionally, the Israelis briefed the ambassadors of Jordan and Egypt on Monday, and American mediator Dennis B. Ross held another session with the Israelis on Tuesday.


"We're encouraged by what we saw, and we're encouraged that everybody's coming back tomorrow," department spokesman Glyn Davies said Tuesday. "We look forward to further progress."


Davies would not say what prompted Ross' apparent optimism, and other American mediators were unwilling to discuss the negotiations.


Christopher plans to leave Monday for Paris to attend a conference of nations assisting the Palestinian Authority to run the West Bank and then fly on to the Middle East.


Israeli and Syrian negotiators said Friday and over the weekend that no issues were resolved at the talks 80 kilometers east of Washington.


The negotiations are aimed at securing a peace treaty between the Middle Eastern neighbors based on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights and new security precautions on the border.


Damascus Radio, in a commentary Tuesday, said Syria is committed to "full peace" in exchange for a total withdrawal. That imposes great responsibility on Israel to accelerate negotiations.