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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel, Syria Open Peace Talks in Washington

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Bill Clinton launched a renewed drive Wednesday for peace between Israel and Syria, saying that "we have never had such an extraordinary opportunity to reach a comprehensive settlement.''

At the opening of two days of talks, Clinton said: "What we are witnessing today is not yet peace, and getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path.''

Clinton spoke at a photo opportunity with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. They gathered in the Rose Garden on a chilly, foggy morning.

Clinton met with Barak and al-Sharaa in the Oval Office before stepping outside to face the press. The president also was to meet with the Middle East leaders separately before they began their own talks, across the street from the White House at Blair House, the government guest house.

Al-Sharaa said this round of talks "promises for the first time the dawn of a real hope to achieve an honorable and just peace in the Middle East.''

Barak said Israelis were aware of the "seriousness, determination and devotion'' that will be required to reach an agreement for "a different Middle East where nations are living side by side ? in mutual respect and good neighborliness.''

Summing up, Clinton said, "We are going to work.''

The difficulty of reaching a land-for-peace agreement was underscored by al-Sharaa, who, while offering Israel a "just peace,'' also denounced Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights. He said tens of thousands of Syrians had been uprooted from their homes and their villages destroyed.

"We are approaching the moment of truth,'' the Syrian minister said, expressing the hope that this effort would bring success and be the last time the two sides had to negotiate for peace. He insisted that Syria had been misrepresented as an aggressor in conflicts with Israel over the Golan.

"These claims carry no grain of truth,'' al-Sharaa said.

Defying tradition and despite the urging of photographers, Barak and al-Sharaa did not shake hands.

Al-Sharaa insisted that the negotiations were reopening "at the point at which they stopped'' 3 1/2 years ago. He thereby registered Syria's view that it already has an implicit commitment from Israel to give up the territory, a point al-Sharaa drove home by saying Syria must have the "return of all its occupied land.''

By contrast, Barak said, "We are determined to do everything we can to bring about the dream of children and mothers all around the region.'' He said: "We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace.''

Barak has suggested that some if not all of the 17,000 Jews who live on the Golan Heights, farming and operating wineries, would be uprooted.

Issues confronting Barak and al-Sharaa "are quite difficult and long-standing,'' White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

Further down the road, though, a senior official suggested there is reason to hope for a land-for-peace deal.

"They have a level of confidence about what can happen once they come back to the table,'' said the U.S. official, who talked to reporters at the White House under rules that shielded his identity.

The talks begin where they left off 3 1/2 years ago, he said, apparently endorsing the Syrian view that Israel had already committed itself to give up the Golan Heights before the talks broke up over security problems.

Indeed, Barak has begun preparing Israel for a "painful'' outcome, with his suggestion to parliament that some or all the Jews living on the strategic plateau would have to leave.

After Clinton's three-way meeting with Barak and al-Sharaa and separate meetings with them, the Israeli and Syrian delegations were going across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House for face-to-face negotiations.

Albright and senior U.S. mediator Dennis Ross were planning to be on hand, but not in the room with the delegations, at least not at the start.

"No doubt, if there are problems, we are going to look for ways to overcome them,'' the U.S. official said Tuesday. "They very clearly want to move ahead, and we certainly are going to play our role in terms of helping them do that.''