U.S. Pushes for Restart of Israeli-Syrian Talks

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

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Clinton administration is working hard to push Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table.

President Clinton held surprise talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara in Washington Wednesday -- the latest in a series of U.S. attempts to restart the talks, which have been stalled since 1996. But the hour-long meeting yielded little fruit.

"They discussed the status of the Syrian track, and the best way to move the process forward," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council. "There's still work to do," he added.

The talks with Clinton came after meetings between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Shara in New York last week failed to produce results.

Syria refuses to resume negotiations without an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders, thus relinquishing the entire Golan Heights.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister David Levy called on Syria yesterday to resume talks with Israel. Negotiations were not "political sacrifices" but "basic necessities."

However, Levy made it clear that Israel "cannot accept a precondition to beginning the talks" and demands for a "final outcome as dictated by the extreme and dogged formulas of the opposing side."

Syrian and Lebanese delegates remained in the Assembly while Levy was speaking.

The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported Wednesday that Syria had upped the ante and was now asking for all of the east shore of the Sea of Galilee in addition to the Golan Heights. However, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff Danny Yatom dismissed the report.

"Such a thing was never discussed," Yatom said, "there was never such a request, and we will never agree to such a thing."

Barak told the Israeli people this week that they would have to make "painful concessions" in order to reach an agreement with the Syrians. Speaking to visitors during the Feast of Tabernacles he said he didn't want to "mislead" Israelis, but that "an agreement with Syria means very painful concessions on the Golan Heights."

The only concession being asked of Syria at this point is to talk to Israel.

Meanwhile, there has been an escalation of fighting in south Lebanon over the past month. The level of Hizb'Allah activity in Lebanon is seen as an indicator of Syria's willingness to deal with Israel. The Iranian-backed organization operates largely in Syrian-controlled areas.