Mideast: The First Steps In A Delicate Dance

They never shook hands, not even in private. So say U.S. officials describing the chilly if historic two-day meeting in Washington between Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But Barak certainly tried to defrost the atmosphere. The Israeli leader managed to engage the reserved Shara in small talk several times, at one point discussing savory Yemenite shellfish--"I can't eat it," lamented Barak, alluding to Kosher laws--and trading stories about their kids. Barak's schmoozing may help when negotiations resume Jan. 3. While the two made little headway on key border issues, negotiators note that Shara and the Syrian press have stopped demanding a return to the "June 4, 1967" border--which for years has been Damascus's code for all of the Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee and its shoreline. If Syria is willing to compromise there, it could produce a major breakthrough. Even so, U.S. officials expect several rounds of talks before a peace deal is reached. One topic no one dared discuss: whether Syrian President Hafez Assad is well enough to see an accord to its conclusion.

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