Why Clinton Returned to Israel-Syria Talks

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Impressions are as important as concessions when it comes to Mideast peace. And the impression that the Israelis are having things all their own way in the Shepherdstown talks has prompted Syria to declare a crisis. President Clinton on Thursday was called back to the West Virginia meeting to knock heads together, after Syrian delegates warned that talks could not proceed without discussion on the future borders between the two states. The current talks are premised on the principle that long-term peace will involve Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for cast-iron security guarantees and normalization of relations between the Jewish state and its most intractable foe. But the extent of Israel's withdrawal and the extent of those security guarantees remain key sticking points.

Having dropped its demand that Israel publicly commit to a Golan withdrawal beforethe commencement of any talks, Syria insisted that this be the first item of business. But with one eye on a domestic political base skeptical about retreating from the strategic plateau, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was more interested in making security arrangements the top priority. The U.S.-brokered compromise involved the creation of four commissions that would meet simultaneously to discuss borders, security arrangements, water supplies and normalization of relations. While the commissions on security and normalization have started their work, those looking at borders and water haven't — and the Syrians say that's because Israel is dragging its feet. And discussing only the issues most dear to Israel forces Syria to tip its hand while Israel's intentions on withdrawing from the Golan remain secret. So it's hardly surprising that Syria has called a halt — after all, as much as Barak needs to be able to return to Tel Aviv claiming to have won security concessions, so does Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa need to be able to return to Damascus with an Israeli commitment to cede the Golan. So Bill Clinton will have to make his third personal intervention in only four days. At least it beats helping Hillary unpack the moving boxes in Westchester.