Clinton to Officiate at Opening of Israeli-Syrian Talks

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

Jerusalem ( President Clinton will officiate at the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in Washington Wednesday morning. The first meeting, scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. EDT, will be the highest-level ever between the two foes.

After the opening session, Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are each expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara separately before the two sides meet for face-to-face talks at Blair House. Albright and other officials will be on hand to facilitate the talks if necessary.

On his arrival in Washington, Shara told reporters the Syrians were "optimistic" about the outcome of the talks after hearing Barak's statements to the Knesset earlier this week.

Barak reiterated his oft-repeated statement to Israeli legislators Monday that Israel should be prepared for "painful" territorial compromises in order to reach a peace agreement with Syria.

These compromises could mean the displacement of 18,000 Golan Heights residents and the giving up of Israel's strategic edge on the plateau.

"Our country's attitude toward peace is genuine," Shara, whose country is on the State Department's list of terror-sponsors, said late Tuesday. "We are serious about reaching results and we hope the Israeli side will reciprocate.

According to Israeli press reports Barak is expected to challenge Shara by urging him not to miss the "historic opportunity at hand" and warning him that "the alternative to reaching an agreement may not be simply a return to what was, but to something far worse."

U.S. officials are downplaying any significant developments as a result of the opening two-day talks. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said there would be no handshaking or goodwill picture-taking in advance of the talks.

"We're working on some important issues on how to move forward in this process - to find a way to a deal rather than on any pictures or symbols," Lockhart said.

Just how sensitive the relations are between the two sides was indicated by an incident on Tuesday, when the Syrian negotiating delegation discovered it had been booked into the same hotel as the Israeli press corps traveling with Barak. The Syrians promptly found alternative accommodation.

State Department spokesman James Foley said the administration did not know how the talks "are going to play out, and when they will reach their endpoint."

He said Washington does not "expect agreement on the Israeli-Syrian track to emerge from the two days of meetings that are envisaged and scheduled for this week."

A second round of talks is expected as early as next week in the United States, though further negotiations are expected to move to the Middle East.

The two sides must reach agreement on four main items: The extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights; security arrangements for Israel; the character of a peace agreement; and a timetable.