SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh on Wednesday turned their 3-day-old peace conference over to committees of experts, who started the nitty-gritty work of resolving the welter of disputes that has produced half a century of steady hatred punctuated by warfare.
"They are chugging along in a professional manner," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said on what he called the "first serious business day" of the talks.
The antagonists formed four panels of experts to debate peacetime borders, including Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967; normalized relations; security arrangements; and water rights.
But the new phase of negotiations left Barak, Shareh, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright temporarily in the background. Clinton stayed away from Shepherdstown on Wednesday, although officials said he will return before the conference ends, while Albright met separately with the Israeli and Syrian delegation leaders.
Although Syria, Israel and the United States named senior officials to the committees, Barak, Shareh and Albright were not assigned to any of them.
Rubin said Barak and Shareh plan to remain in this tiny West Virginia college town at least until the weekend, when the three delegations will assess their progress and decide how to proceed.
The committees on security arrangements and normalized relations held their first formal meetings Wednesday, Rubin said. The other two panels are expected to start work today.
Rubin said U.S. participants in the sessions reported that the meetings were "constructive . . . and positive in terms of getting down to business."
At the same time, he said, it is far too early for the panels to begin reaching any kind of agreement.
The first meetings were taken up by efforts to reconstruct the state of play at the time an earlier round of talks broke down four years ago. The parties agreed to begin this time at the point at which the earlier talks ended--but Israel and Syria disagree on just what that was.
Underlining the importance Washington assigns to the talks, Army Lt. Gen. Donald R. Kerrick headed the U.S. contingent on the security committee and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk worked with the relations panel.
The decision for the committee meetings to begin with the issues of security and normalized relations marked a modest procedural victory for Israel. On Monday, the delegations were tied in knots by a dispute over the order in which the topics would be discussed, with Syria arguing that the talks should start with the issue of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and Israel asserting that the first topics should be peaceful relations and security.
But it was far from clear what, if any, long-term advantages the Israeli side gained by getting its way on procedure. Asked about the matter, Rubin said, "I don't intend to help you score it as a Ping-Pong match."
Rubin said the two sides engaged in "informal discussions" on the other topics even though the formal committees had not met. And U.S. officials said there must be agreement on all issues before anything becomes final.
One of the Clinton administration's objectives for this conference is to have the Israelis and Syrians get to know one another and react to one another on a personal level. Officials admitted that it is an unlikely outcome but said it was worth a try.
On Tuesday night, the U.S. delegation hosted a half-hour party--with nonalcoholic beverages and no food--in the hopes that the two sides would mingle. Rubin said there was a "remarkable" degree of interaction, with Barak occasionally addressing Syrian delegates in Arabic. But the reception clearly did not end the animosity.
Although the Israeli and Syrian delegations are housed on the same floor of the hotel complex, officials say the two sides have pretty much kept to themselves.