January 6, 2000
U.S. at Center Stage in Syria Talks
They were called "Syrian-Israeli" talks, but this week's second round of negotiations between the two countries was very much an American affair -- in a storybook small town chosen by the White House, with President Clinton playing host and mediator.
So it was no surprise that when the talks were snagged over a disagreements over what to talk about, it was Clinton who held the negotiators' hands, cajoled, nudged and pleaded.
Administration officials have concluded that only an unusually active American role can achieve closure in talks in which the two sides are close on the details of an agreement -- but psychologically far apart.
That's in keeping with the views of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who headed the big Israeli delegation that arrived at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in bucolic Shepherdstown, W.Va. on Sunday for talks held under an unusual shroud of secrecy.
The expanded U.S. role has risks, many observers say, especially because it could lead to expectations that Washington can't back up with action.
And to critics, it merely reflects a peace process in which the Syrians have little interest in making peace with Israel, and all the interest in the world in cultivating ties with Washington.
"It suggests that even if an agreement is reached, it would be grudging," said Daniel Pipes, a Mideast analyst who has criticized the current peace process. "The administration is giving Barak what he wants. And Barak is reflecting the Israeli body politic, which simply wants out, and is willing to give the Syrians anything they want."
The setting for this week's talks -- a sequestered conference center ten miles from the nearest Interstate highway -- was meant to force Israeli and Syrian negotiators into closer contact.
But the remote setting did not obviate the need for an overarching U.S. presence. That role quickly boiled to the surface on Tuesday, when the Syrians wanted to start with the question of borders -- and the Israelis insisted on beginning with security.
That forced Clinton and his team of negotiators to center stage. After another round of presidential intervention, the "procedural hurdle" was overcome, according to a State Department spokesman.
But nobody expected that would be the last 911 call to the White House.
"We are still at least a dozen crises away from an agreement," said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. "One of America's jobs is to strike a difficult balance between stepping aside when things are going well -- and stepping in when there are logjams."
Also, he said, Assad's driving desire to improve relations with Washington requires a more active U.S. role.
"Assad won't even let his negotiators into the room with the Israelis without the Americans present at every step," he said.
Israeli officials concede that the reclusive Syrian president has his sights set on Washington, not Jerusalem, but say it doesn't make any difference as long as he is willing to sign a detailed agreement that includes what Barak deems sufficient security guarantees.
Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer working in Washington and a veteran of earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations, said President Bill Clinton's heavy investment in this week's talks -- and Barak's willingness to come back for Round Two, despite the fact that he was negotiating with Syria's foreign minister, not President Assad -- shows how close the two parties are to an agreement.
Both sides want close U.S. involvement, he said, because "at the end of the day, the two parties will also turn their faces and maybe their hands to the United States to contribute its own share to the success of the negotiations -- beyond their good advice."
Administration officials deny they have made any specific commitments, but most observers agree that at least the implication that U.S. money, equipment and possibly peace monitoring forces will follow an agreement could be critical in getting the two sides over the last few hurdles.