JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has broken the silence that prevailed during his weeklong talks with Syria in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
In a series of interviews he gave after returning to Israel on Tuesday, Barak was upbeat about the negotiations, saying that a framework for an agreement could be reached soon.
It is not "presumptuous to think that we can have a framework agreement within two months," Barak said in an interview Wednesday on Army Radio.
Clearly aimed at bolstering support for the peace treaty he is trying to achieve, the interviews were seen as an effort to counter the estimated 150,000 Israelis who turned out Monday night in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against turning over any of the Golan Heights as part of such a treaty.
Barak told Army Radio that although he has made no promises about withdrawing from the Golan, commitments made by his predecessors could not be ignored. Syria claims that previous Israeli governments pledged to return all of the Golan for peace.
In a television interview, Barak also stressed that he had made no commitment to Syria regarding a Golan withdrawal.
The comments came in the wake of reports that he had offered to withdraw to the international border of 1923 — which falls short of the Syrian demand for a withdrawal that would give Damascus control over the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
"Negotiations have reached a critical stage, requiring difficult decisions," Barak said, adding that it was impossible to predict whether the next round of talks, slated to start Jan. 19 in the United States, would be conclusive.
Barak downplayed the widespread media reports that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa had been cold toward him during the Shepherdstown talks.
For many Israelis, Sharaa's coolness — and that of the Syrian delegation in general toward its Israeli counterparts — had dampened their own enthusiasm for a peace deal.
Barak said that in light of the serious issues on the negotiating table, the issue of courtesies was secondary.
"If the agreement moves toward a decision, it is clear to all that even [Syrian President Hafez] Assad will have to see us and shake hands. If we do not reach an agreement, there is no point to the question," he said.
Barak also downplayed the significance of the Tel Aviv rally, saying that a large number of the protesters would change their minds when they saw the peace dividends from an agreement.
He predicted that a "sweeping majority" of Israelis would support him when a planned referendum on the evolving accord is presented to the public.