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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Officials Play Down Process of Speedy Deal Between Israel and Syria at West Virginia Talks

Aired January 3, 2000 - 8:10 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: Israel and Syria opened peace talks in a small town in West Virginia today, with the help of President Bill Clinton. This first round is expected to last a week or 10 days. Officials from all three sides say a peace agreement is still months away at best. They're playing down the prospect of a speedy deal.

CNN Jerusalem bureau chief Walter Rodgers is covering the talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Clinton seemed to borrow a page from Ronald Reagan, who took that historic walk in the woods with Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Clinton trying the same thing with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, the president hoping to point them toward a historic agreement that would end 50 years of hot and cold wars between these historic Middle East enemies.

Syrian sources told CNN, Mr. Al-Shara first wants an acknowledgment from Barak that Israel is ready to withdraw to the 1967 borders, meaning full return of the Golan Heights. The United States role, bridging the gaps.

JAMES RUBIN, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We are at the time of for decisions. So there is a sense of seizing this historic opportunity, with a sense or urgency, because no one knows if it will ever come again.

RODGERS: Drawing a new border may be the toughest issue. The 1967 line favors Syria. Israel wants the old 1923 colonial border that keeps Syria back from the sea of Galilee. That reservoir is a full third of Israel's fresh water supply, and it is unlikely the Israeli public would tolerate a Syrian presence on these shores.

Additionally, before Prime Minister Barak forfeits land, he wants to know what security guarantees Israel gets in return, and how ready is Damascus for full normalization of ties. Israeli sources say Mr. Barak also wants $18 billion from Washington to compensate Israel.

Mr. Clinton has his own wish list here. He's trying to cap his place in history with a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement that has eluded his predecessors. (on camera): In some ways, the sides seem working at cross- purposes. The Syrians wants quick results and a package deal. The Israeli prime ministers pace, more deliberate; too quick an agreement might not play well back in Israel.

Walter Rodgers, CNN, Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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