After meeting with both sides and then individually with al-Sharaa and Barak, President Clinton told reporters that the talks “are going pretty well, but it’s hard going.”
The spirit of tense optimism was evident at the opening ceremony when Barak and al-Sharaa ignored photographer requests to shake hands. Clinton stepped forward, saying they were “going to work.”
Both al-Sharaa and Barak made statements acknowledging the historical nature of the meeting.
Al-Sharaa extended an offer to stop dwelling on conflict with Israel and start working toward peace, but ended with an insistence that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria.
In a brief statement, Barak said: “We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward to peace.”
The Syrian and Israeli delegations then adjourned to Blair House, the presidential guest house, for more negotiations.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The two countries have technically been at war ever since. Peace talks were initiated in 1991, but disintegrated in 1996.
The 444 square mile plateau serves as a barrier between Israel and Syria to the Northeast. Israel’s presence has kept Syria away from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, two vital sources of water.
The current round of talks will try to address the exact line of the Israel-Syria border, the fate of Jewish settlers in the Golan and a timeline for withdrawal.
Although he has the support of the Israeli parliament, Barak is facing tension at home. On Monday, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, barely gave Barak a vote of confidence for his peace mission. He had hoped for a broad mandate.
Polls show that Israelis overall are evenly divided over whether to return the Golan Heights. The 17,000 settlers in the Golan Heights, who could be forced from their homes if the region is returned to Syria, have organized demonstrations. There were also reports of threats of violence against Barak.
Meanwhile, the Syrian sanctioned guerrilla group Hezbollah launched a series of attacks against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon Wednesday.
The talks continue tomorrow, and for the next two weeks. If a settlement is reached, it would have to be approved by the Israeli parliament and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.