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Israel and Syria to talk peace in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

December 21, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - This quiet college town along the banks of the Potomac River has been selected as the site of the next round of the Middle East peace talks between Israel and Syria, U.S. and local officials said Tuesday.

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The talks will be held at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center beginning Jan. 3 and will continue indefinitely, officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa are expected to lead delegations that will continue talks that began in Washington last week.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will also attend the talks and President Clinton is expected to be available "on a regular basis," said a State Department spokeswoman who asked not to be identified.

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The U.S. goal is a peace accord centered on Israel relinquishing Golan Heights territory in exchange for recognition.

Syria and Israel have battled over territory since the state of Israel was created in 1948.

The latest round of negotiations to be held in Shepherdstown are an effort to end the conflict, although no formal agreements are expected, State Department officials said. The parties will negotiate on four major issues: withdrawal from occupied territories; the character of peaceful relations between Syria and Israel; security arrangements, and a timetable for peace, according to the State Department spokeswoman.

Shepherdstown was selected for the talks because of its semi-seclusion and its proximity to the capital. The aims were privacy as well as ease for President Clinton, the State Department said.

The talks are expected to bring worldwide attention to the picturesque Eastern Panhandle community. The talks also are expected to put West Virginia in the spotlight.

"This puts West Virginia truly on the world stage and not only in terms of what we hope comes out of it - moving peace forward - but also for greater recognition of West Virginia worldwide," said U.S. Rep Bob Wise, D-W.Va. "I think (it's) a major major moment in our state's history."

"It's a wonderful tribute to this historic and beautiful town," said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "I am certain Shepherdstown will shine when it enters the national spotlight in early January."

For local officials, there will be more immediate concerns: traffic, people, and a crush of American and foreign media.

"We're certainly expecting a lot of people, a lot of press and a lot of attention," Shepherdstown Mayor Vince Parmesano said after being briefed on the talks by U.S. State Department officials on Tuesday.

Parmesano is imagining possible benefits Shepherdstown could reap from the talks being held there. Peace talks frequently are referred to based on the location where they took place, such as the Wye River Peace Accords, which were held on Maryland's Eastern Shore in October last year.

If they're successful, the new talks could become the Shepherdstown Peace Accords, Parmesano said.

"It will add, of course, to the town's already rich history," said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson.

Many details remain to be worked out, and it's unclear how many people will attend, but Doyle estimated there will be "hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds."

The State Department will provide much of the security, and the U.S. Secret Service will also cover the area, West Virginia State Police Trooper Monte Williams said.

He said he expects the area's police to have a role. "I'm certain we will be involved, especially if the president is coming through here," said Williams, who is stationed at the state police barracks in Jefferson County.

The privately owned Clarion is leased by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and is frequently used by mid- and high-level federal government administrators for training.

The center has a swimming pool, tavern, conference rooms and an exercise room and doubles as a hotel when federal authorities are not using it.

It's possible that there may not be enough room at the Clarion for everyone, and that some space might be needed at Shepherd College, Parmesano said.

It is too early to determine what Shepherd's role in the talks could be, if any at all, said college spokeswoman Valerie Owens. College officials are expected to learn more details in coming days, Owens said.

Parmesano said State Department officials met with him at his office Tuesday afternoon to explain how the talks will be organized and what the town can expect. He said they wanted to know about town operations such as snow removal and traffic control and wanted to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

"They're doing it very well with the aspect of public relations. I was very impressed," Parmesano said.

Similar meetings were held with Shepherd President David Dunlop and officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's National Conservation and Training Center Tuesday, Parmesano said.

Parmesano said it's not clear how some of the foreign dignitaries will arrive, although they could fly directly into the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport south of Martinsburg.

Local officials said they do not know how Shepherdstown was chosen for the talks, although it could be related to the fact federal government managers have gone to the Clarion for training, Parmesano said.

They probably return home to Washington and spread the word that Shepherdstown is a great place to do business, Parmesano said.

"Maybe they read the article in the Washingtonian," joked Parmesano.

In May, The Washingtonian magazine named Shepherdstown the smartest small town in the greater D.C. area.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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