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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Israel-Syria Peace Talks Get Under Way

Aired January 3, 2000 - 6:00 p.m. ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The latest chapter in the Middle East peace process is unfolding in the United States. President Clinton Monday launched a new round of negotiations between Israel and Syria in Shepherdstown, West Virginia -- that's just outside Washington, D.C.

CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel is there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Round two of Israeli-Syrian land-for-peace talks began with a symbolic walk across a bridge, President Clinton, as host, hoping to bridge remaining gaps, insisting these talks cover all issues blocking a final deal. But the walk was hardly over before U.S. officials began downplaying any expectations this round would be the last.

JAMES RUBIN, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We do not expect to achieve a core agreement in one round of negotiations.

KOPPEL: That's because the issues separating these enemies of more than 50 years are so complex. Still, to demonstrate they came ready to negotiate the nitty gritty of a deal, both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara arrived in West Virginia with dozens of experts in tow -- experts in law, military affairs, water resources and geography.

RUBIN: We're at a time for decisions, but those decisions don't get made in an instant. And they have to be the result of developing confidence, developing a sense of seriousness, a sense of good intentions, and recognizing -- and this is critical -- that each side has their own needs.

KOPPEL: For the Syrians, the core issue at stake is the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 war. But before it turns over some or all of this strategic plateau, Israel wants to ensure its security is enhanced, not diminished. In addition, Israel wants Syria to agree to diplomatic recognition and to guarantee Israel access to limited water resources.

However, because Israel and Syria have different ideas about what's most important to resolve first, President Clinton and Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright, as mediators, are trying to help the two sides reach a compromise as to how to begin. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: And in order to limit leaks to the news media, the United States has imposed a zone of silence around the talks. And in a gesture of good will, Israeli and Syrian negotiators have voluntarily turned in their cell phones. U.S. officials stress that some news reports leading up to these talks have been a little too optimistic, and they emphasize there can be no deal until everything's agreed to -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, a lot of the developments could happen behind the scenes. What's on the agenda this evening, for example, when they wrap up their formal talks?

KOPPEL: Right now, the negotiators are in the midst of a break from the Ramadan fast. The Syrian negotiators are taking their break as well as the Israelis and the Americans. And within the next hour or so, President Clinton is set to meet with the Israeli prime minister and the Syrian foreign minister for their first face-to-face, three-way talk of today's talks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, and presumably at some point they'll get together for some informal talks, as well. But we'll be standing by awaiting those reports. Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

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