Israelis and Syrians smooth path to peace

As Israel's peace process coordinator and Foreign Ministry director-general Uri Savir told reporters Friday of last week, Ross said the talks are occurring in a "new context."

"What's new now is the feeling on both sides that there's a willingness to reach a conclusion," said Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich.

Ross also told negotiators from both sides that the recent talks "were like six years [of work] compared to where we were before," Savir added. "There's an opportunity to progress now that shouldn't be taken lightly."

Furthermore, Savir later told CNN, "We can see the contours al-ready of a possible peace treaty." He told Israel Television, "I have less doubt than before that the Syrians indeed are committed to arriving at a peace, a real peace as the Syrians define it."

In one sign that the talks were moving to new heights, Israel and Syria agreed that army officers will be part of the negotiations when the two sides reconvene for another round of talks later this month, Israeli delegation members said this week.

That constrasts sharply to the mood of mistrust that prevailed between the two nations when they tried unsuccessfully to bring army officers together in Washington D.C., last year.

In another sign of hopefulness, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said this week the United States would send peacekeeping troops to patrol the Golan under an Israeli-Syrian disengagement.

"If the peace agreement be-tween Israel and Syria is reached, which we hope and believe will happen, and if that calls for a peace-monitoring force on the Golan Heights…we are prepared to do that," Perry said.

Israelis say the talks produced results not in details of peace proposals, but in the way Israel and Syria deal with one another.

The two sides reached "understandings on certain subjects but there is no real agreement in any subject because that was not the aim," Savir said. "The goal was to understand one another better."

The Israeli negotiating team returned to Jerusalem Sunday and briefed Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Ehud Barak.

The Maryland talks did bring about a "convergence" on certain positions, Savir said, but he would not specify what they were.

He also said the sides had exhibited a great deal of creativity in seeking to narrow gaps and had found a formula for working together "that I think will lead to real progress."

However, such core areas of disagreement as security, water and border issues were not discussed, and await the inclusion of experts on both sides, Savir added.

Syrian negotiator Walid Mualem voiced the first official mention by Damascus of the possibility of substantial progress in the 4-year-old talks.

"As a result of the talks it was found that progress could be achieved in substance regarding the basic issues despite the existence of difficulties and gaps on some of the basic elements of peace," Mualem told the official Syrian news agency Sanaa in a telephone interview from Washington.

"The talks covered several matters, topped by the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Syrian Golan to the June 4, 1967 line, normal peaceful ties, security arrangements and a timetable for implementation," Mualem said.

"The talks also covered a wider framework because Syria constituted a key to a just and comprehensive peace in the region," Mualem said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, in a TV interview with a London-based Arab station, said "President [Hafez el-] Assad has a lot of privileges such as patience, deep vision…

"All these constituted a motive for him to stick to the Arab right and to restore all Arab lands through peace talks and not through wars."

The peace talks are set to push farther ahead, and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is readying an announcement on when they will resume.

Christopher, arriving in Israel Wednesday on a new shuttle mission, urged Israel and Syria to speed up the pace of their peace talks.

Still, in a phone call to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an optimistic Christopher cautioned against "too much euphoria" before any peace pact is finalized.