Clinton-Assad Summit Fails To Restart Israeli-Syrian Talks

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

Jerusalem ( - President Clinton's special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross was on his way to Jerusalem Monday to brief Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the president's weekend summit with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Few details were forthcoming after the Clinton-Assad meeting in Geneva Sunday, but the message that did emerge was clear - the meeting failed to be the catalyst for resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

"Clinton thought it important to meet Assad so as to try and further the process. He has met several times with Barak and so believed this was appropriate," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters in Geneva after the talks.

The summit, Lockhart said, gave the president the chance to talk to Assad "face to face" and "to clarify the Israeli needs personally, and to get a better understanding of Assad's needs."

Syrian presidential spokesman Jubran Kourieh said Assad had emphasized the Syrian demand that Israel withdraw to the ceasefire lines in place before Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War.

"Since yesterday nothing earth-shattering happened in the peace process," Kourieh was quoted as saying.

Clinton reportedly presented Assad with Barak's modified withdrawal plan, which included a pullback to the 1967 frontier, but stopping short of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

Clinton will continue to work toward helping the parties overcome their differences, Lockhart said. "It is impossible to predict when talks will resume," the spokesman added, but all parties had agreed to continue to work toward bridging the gaps "in order to get the peace process moving."

Barak had downplayed expectations of a breakthrough in the Geneva summit before it took place, saying there had been only a fifty-fifty chance of the talks restarting.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down two months ago after two rounds in the U.S. over a Syrian demand that Israel commit to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in writing, before any peace agreement was reached.

Clinton, who played a major role in the 10-day talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in January, has continued to work with the two parties to try to find a formula for restarting the talks.

An escalation of fighting in south Lebanon at the beginning of the year, between the Iranian-backed Hizballah and the Israeli army and its allied South Lebanon Army (SLA), threatened to fully derail the peace process.

Israel has maintained a buffer zone in southern Lebanon with the help of the SLA for the last 15 years. The aim has been to prevent cross-border attacks from terror organizations analysts say are fighting a proxy war for Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon.

Syria and Lebanon have said that the only agreement with Israel will be a three-way one involving Israel and both Arab countries. Lebanon has said it will not guarantee security along Israel's northern border if Israel has not also left the Golan.

Preparations are currently underway to pull Israeli troops out of south Lebanon unilaterally if no agreement can be reached by Barak's July deadline.

That deadline, as well as the fact Clinton's time left in office is short, have put added pressure on Clinton, Assad and Barak to reach a deal quick.

Barak has said that if no agreement is reached by May, then the Israeli government will know what to do.