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                     Publisher\Editor Don Canaan
                      Dec. 18, 1995, V3, #229
All the News the Big Guys Missed

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Will Israel and Syria be Meeting in Dayton?

By Al Pessin (VOA-Jerusalem), Ron Pemstein (VOA-Washington)

Israel and Syria have agreed to new, intensive talks near Washington starting next week, to try to begin solving the disagreements which have prevented them from reaching a peace accord.

Much of the analysis of the state of the Israel-Syria talks focuses on the substantive issues on which there is considerable disagreement. The two sides cannot agree on the extent and timing of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights or the exact definition of a future peaceful relationship. They disagree on issues of military force reductions on each side of a new border and on Israel's demand for early-warning stations in Syrian territory. There are disputes over water rights, Palestinian refugees and many other issues.

But the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, who will lead Israel's delegation to the new talks, says there are still other issues which must be tackled first, a process which, he says, if successful, should make it easier to deal with such things as borders, force levels and diplomatic relations.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher is returning to the US after successfully getting Israel and Syria to agree to resume negotiations later this month about the future of the Golan and their eventual relationship.

Just as in Dayton, the negotiators will be placed in a secluded location outside Washington away from the media and they will talk around the clock. The schedule for the Israeli-Syrian talks is less ambitious than the 21 straight days of the Bosnia peace talks.

Instead the Israelis and the Syrians are to meet for three straight days, take a break for the New Year's holiday and resume again the next week for three more days. The new format is flexible and the negotiators will bring up any issue they choose. The interruptions will give Israel and Syria a chance to access their progress and decide to go in another direction later.

Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres has signaled Syria can gain a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace. Syria obviously has different definitions from Israel for what those terms mean.

O' Little Town of Bethlehem

By Al Pessin (VOA-Bethlehem)

The biblical town of Bethlehem, on the West Bank, gains autonomy today -- one week before the annual Christmas celebrations at the site Christians believe Jesus was born. Preparations for Christmas and autonomy have proceeded side-by-side in Bethlehem in recent weeks. The two most noticeable groups working in the city have been Palestinian police officers preparing to take security responsibility and Palestinian workers stringing Christmas lights.

In stores, Palestinian flags and pictures of the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, are displayed alongside blow-up Santa Claus dolls decorated with Arab head-scarves, kafiyehs.

Officials and merchants speak enthusiastically about the coming of both Christmas and autonomy, mixing references to "Peace in the Middle East" with the Christmas theme of "Peace on Earth." Bethlehem's longtime mayor is Elias Freij.

"We hope that peace will be established in the Holy Land between Israelis and Arabs, where both people can live in peace as good neighbors, free neighbors, equal neighbors, as neighbors who can associate freely, visit with each other freely, do business together freely, and live as good neighbors."

Bethlehem is the Palestinian city closest to Jerusalem, virtually bordering a Jewish neighborhood on the southern edge of the city. During the next two weeks, Israeli troops are to withdraw from parts of the tense town of Hebron and from the city of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. Palestinian elections are scheduled for Jan. 20.

Bethlehem is unique among Palestinian towns. Although it no longer has a Christian majority, Christians make up a substantial proportion of the city's residents. It is the only Palestinian city which is a major tourist attraction, giving its economy a profitable base -- a factor many experts believe has also made it one of the most peaceful spots on the West Bank even during the most intense days of the Palestinian uprising.

For those Palestinian Christians who have stayed in Bethlehem, such as Angela Jackaman, whose family owns a souvenir store on Manger Square, Christmas is always an important time of year, but this year the arrival of autonomy makes it more so.

Across Manger Square from Jackaman's Store is the Church of the Nativity. In a grotto under the church's altar is the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. The church is a place of pilgrimage for Christians every day of the year. On Christmas, tens of thousands gather for Midnight Mass. This year, Arafat, a Muslim, is expected to be among them. And for the first time, outside, Palestinian police officers will be providing the security.

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