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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Optimistic Israel-Syria Peace Talks Face Difficulties Before President Clinton Arrives

Aired January 3, 2000 - 12:02 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JONATHAN MAN, CNN ANCHOR: The latest chapter in the Middle East peace process unfolds in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, within the hour. Israeli and Syrian leaders will hold a second round of talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton standing by.

CNN's Walter Rodgers takes a closer look now at some of the contentious issues on the table.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This corner of West Virginia has not tasted battle since the American Civil War. Now it's the latest testing ground for peace in the Middle East. In this quaint town, prime minister of Israel and the foreign minister of Syria will seek a framework for ending their half century of hot and cold wars, this under the sponsorship of the United States.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: They are very difficult issues, fateful issues for both leaders, and that some very hard decisions are going to be made. We don't expect this to conclude quickly.

RODGERS: Leaving Tel Aviv, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he will only sign an agreement with Syria if it strengthens his country's security. Earlier in the week, the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk Al-Sharaa, was equally guarded. Mr. Al-Sharaa saying Syria is making the journey to West Virginia to examine Mr. Barak's sincerity, to be sure the Israeli side really wants peace.

Drawing new borders in this real estate will be difficult. Israeli favors the international border of 1923. Syria prefers the 1967 border that would bring it right up to the Sea of Galilee.

Besides borders, key topics on the agenda include water, who gets this most precious Middle East commodity, security arrangements, forced reductions and pullback for both countries along the new borders, normalization of ties, including opening of new embassies, and most important, the return of the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 War. Israel says yes, but the Golan has to be demilitarized.

DR. EPHRAIM SNEH, ISRAELI DEPUTY DEFENSE MINISTER: Our purpose is that Syria would never have an advantage or temptation to try and surprise Israel, if they have the Golan Heights in their hands.

RODGERS: But Syria feels at least as threatened by Israel. These talks have more than a few ironies.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RODGERS: President Clinton arrived just a few moments ago amid signs of possible difficulties even before the talks begin. The Syrians are repeatedly saying they are here to test Israeli's sincerity on these peace talks. Sources close to the Israeli delegation have told CNN that the Israelis see that as hardening of the Israeli -- of the Syrian position even before the talks begin.

And there's another possible contentious issue here: the Israelis are reportedly saying that they are only ready to talk about the agenda in this first week of talks. The Syrians want something much more specific. They want to know the details of what Israel is willing to agree too.

I'm Walter Rodgers, CNN, live, at Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

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