Barak and Albright Report Progress on Israeli-Syrian Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Wednesday agreed they've made "progress" toward the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria.

However, speaking to reporters after their meeting in Jerusalem, neither Barak nor Albright revealed any details about how or when the talks may resume, nor did they give any reasons for their optimism.

Albright arrived in Israel late Tuesday night after a three-hour meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus. She said she felt that Assad was "serious" about finding ways to "re-energize" talks with Israel.

Albright said Washington's objective regarding Syria was clearly "to develop a basis to resume the direct negotiations that were suspended more than three years ago and to make it possible to move quickly to a conclusion.

"I think its fair to say we made good progress toward meeting our objective," she added.

But Barak was vague when asked whether he heard anything from Albright that would make Israel's decision-making any easier.

He said meetings of this kind advance understanding. If there was anything to announce beyond that, they would do so.

"As I said yesterday, details of negotiations, like mushrooms, are developed better away from the light," Albright added.

Hinting that there may indeed be movement behind the scenes, Barak quoted a Talmudic proverb, "The blessing only exists for that which is not obvious to the eye."

But the prime minister, who participated in Israel's capturing of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, said the country's security concerns were of utmost importance to him.

"I will not sign any agreement that will not, to the best of my judgment, strengthen Israel rather than weaken it." He added, however, that he was "realistic enough to know that painful compromises will be needed to achieve peace in every single track."

Barak deeply alarmed Golan Heights residents several months ago when he first began speaking of "painful compromises." Israel has long maintained that retaining the strategic plateau - which overlooks the Galilee in northern Israel and supplies some 30 per cent of Israel's water - is necessary for its security.

He declined to say just what kind of a tradeoff could convince Israel to relinquish the Golan.

"I don't think that any details at this stage will help achieving such a peace, and I'm committed first of all to the results more than to the explanation. If we are able to make a peace, every hesitation along the way will be totally irrelevant. If we fail, any perfect argument will be irrelevant as well," Barak said.

Both in Damascus and Jerusalem, Albright refused to be baited on the issue of an alleged Israeli promise to return all of the Golan Heights as a condition for peace with Syria, saying only that she was "more optimistic" after talks with the Syrian leader.

Assad has maintained that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- before his 1995 death and the subsequent collapse in talks in 1996 -- offered to withdraw from the entire ridge in exchange for a full peace with Syria.

Assad says he will resume negotiations with Israel, only if Jerusalem acknowledges this pledge. Israel denies a promise was ever made and refuses to enter into talks on such a precondition.

After Albright's visit, an official Syrian statement hinted that Assad's position had not changed. It said Syria was not the "stumbling block" to negotiations. Israel should change its mind, the statement said, and not cause the failure of the peace talks.

In related news, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin presented legislation to the Knesset Law Committee to establish a law governing national referendums. According to legislation passed earlier this year, a referendum is necessary before Israel cedes territory or changes the country's borders. Such government decisions also require a majority vote of 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset.