Thursday, December 28, 2006

Olmert: Opposition to Syria talks not the result of U.S. pressure

By Haaretz Service and The Associated Press

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday reiterated his opposition to holding talks with Syria, adding that his opposition did not come at the behest of the United States.

In a meeting with Israeli ambassadors to Europe in his Jerusalem office, Olmert said that Syria's continued support of extremist elements and ties to Iran prove that its offers of peace talks with Israel are meaningless.

He said Israel is interested in peace with Syria but sees no substance to its offer, according to a statement from his office.

"The actions of the Syrian regime, including its support for Hezbollah and its promotion of instability in Lebanon, its sheltering of the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and its close ties with the president of Iran, who calls for the destruction of Israel, show us, unfortunately, that there is nothing behind its declarations" in favor of peace talks, read the statement.

In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad has offered to restart peace talks with Israel. The offers came in different forms, including news interviews.

Olmert noted that the international community is insisting that the Palestinian government must renounce terrorism and fight it as a condition for opening negotiations. "There is no reason why Israel should abandon these principles concerning Syria, which is up to its neck in supporting terrorism," Olmert said, according to the statement.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Tuesday that before any change in policy regarding negotiations with Syria could be considered, Israel would have to ask itself whether the talks culd lead to any sort of peace agreement.

"We must ask ourselves if the significance of Syria's signals is that [Syrian] President Bashar Assad wants just negotiations with Israel or if he also wants to reach peace at the end of the process," Livni told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "We must know what we are going to get at the end of the process."

A senior Foreign Ministry official earlier in the day backed the view expressed last week by Mossad director Meir Dagan that Syria is serious about renewing negotiations.

"Syria is ready for negotiations and there are sources in the Arab states who believe that Syria will ally itself to the Western bloc headed by the United States and Britain," said Nimrod Barkan, the director of the Foreign Ministry Center for Policy Research.

A senior security source told Haaretz that, "There is no doubt that there is a movement within Syria that is interested in talks with us. The only way to gauge their level of seriousness is to talk to them."

In peace talks that broke down in 2000, Israel offered return of all of the captured Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel took from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, but the negotiations foundered on Syrian demands for a foothold on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and conditions for peace it would give Israel.

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