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(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad's actions belie his words, Israeli officials said Sunday night in reaction to an interview Assad gave the German Der Spiegel magazine saying that he was interested in peace and had no desire to wipe Israel off the map.
"Israel has always said that it would be more than happy to extend its hand in peace toward Syria, but this is impossible with the present government in Damascus that openly gives a safe haven to terrorist organizations and backs Hizbullah," said a senior government official.
Syria 'ready for possible regional war'
The Syrians have to prove themselves with deeds, not just words, the official said, and the deeds that Israel sees is support for Hizbullah and terrorism against Israel.
Asked in the Der Spiegel interview published on Sunday whether he agreed with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that Israel should be wiped off the map, Assad said that "an entire generation is growing up today with the conviction that only strength and war will lead to peace." Assad said he did not believe in war, but "in the principle of deterrence...I don't say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace - peace with Israel." Then, in what Israeli officials said was a perfect example of Assad's double talk, he said "my hope for peace could change one day. And when the hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution."
In the interview, Assad advised the Europeans not to "waste your time" trying to keep arms from reaching Hizbullah. German ships left Thursday for the Lebanese coast where they will enforce an arms embargo on Hizbullah.
"History teaches us that nobody can prevent a resistance group from arming when it has the support of the people," Assad said. He said that as long as public support for Hizbullah remained as high as it was today, this would be a "Mission Impossible. The majority here sees the resistance against Israel as legitimate. I would advise the Europeans: Don't waste your time, address the roots of the problem."
At the same time, Assad said that Syria "wouldn't make ourselves the target of an Israeli attack by delivering arms. We support Hizbullah by helping with the reconstruction of Lebanon or by opening up our universities to its students."
Regarding the Palestinians, Assad declared "there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria."
He said that stability would not be achieved were the question of the Golan to be solved. "We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution."
Asked where the Palestinian refugees should return to, Assad said this was up to the Palestinians. "I do not believe that the majority of the refugees want to return to Israel. Most of them want to go back to a Palestine within the borders of 1967. The problem is that at the moment Israel is even rejecting this return. This is unacceptable to us."
When asked whether he accepted that Germany had a special responsibility for Israel, Assad replied: "Do you mean that Israel is allowed to kill Palestinians and Arabs because Jews at that time were killed in Germany?" Assad then went on to ask, "Why don't you also protect our right to exist? For us, the balance is important, and Europe is much closer to us than America. Europe knows our world."
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said in an interview Saturday that with the end of the war in Lebanon an opportunity has been created to revive the peace process in the region.
In an interview published in London's a-Sharq al-Awsat Saturday, Mualem said a narrow window of opportunity existed for renewed peace efforts, but whether any efforts were made depended on the will of the international community.
"If [the international community] has the desire and the decisiveness to do so, it could turn this into a real chance for peace, and fix the region's problems. If the international community decides not to, because of Israeli and dominating US pressure, I am certain that this opportunity will be lost," the foreign minister said.
MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) responded to Mualem's statements on Saturday by saying that the government must take his words seriously.
"Ignoring Syria's call to renew negotiations and peace is a political abandonment that I can't understand," said Beilin. He accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of following in the footsteps of former premier, Ariel Sharon, by abandoning a peace offer, and said that if Olmert continued to walk down a path of "blindness and arrogance," it would lead to another war. Beilin also called on Labor ministers to consider Syria's gesture "before they lose their identities."
Mualem said the Arab world could not expect the United Nations to lead peace efforts in the region.
"We cannot put much hope in the Security Council, which took 33 days to decide on a cease-fire in Lebanon," he said.
His remarks came despite upbeat comments made by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa that a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday on reviving the Middle East peace process was "the first step in the direction" after three years of stalled talks.
"The consensus is there. We are going to build on yesterday's meeting to establish peace," Moussa told a news conference Friday. He shrugged off "some hurdles" in getting a unified stance among the 15 nations on the Security Council to present a formal statement.
Israeli officials dismissed Moussa's comments as "grandstanding" and said that an Arab initiative to jump directly to Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations, and bypass the road map stages, was going nowhere.
Meanwhile, Lebanese army troops deployed Saturday in two villages along the Lebanese-Israeli border, taking up positions that the IDF recently left.
About 300 soldiers deployed Saturday in the area south of the southern coastal town of Nakoura, known as Ras Nakoura, and in the village of Labbouneh, Lebanese security officials said.
Both areas are about 100 meters north of the Blue Line demarcating the border between Lebanon and Israel.
The commander of UN troops in south Lebanon, Maj.-Gen. Alain Pelligrini, said Friday he expected Israeli troops to complete their withdrawal from Lebanon by the end of the month. "We are almost there, and with the assistance of UNIFIL, Lebanese armed forces will very soon be able to take control of the whole South Lebanon including the areas along the Blue Line," he said in a statement.
In a related development, US President George W. Bush announced Saturday that he was sending a delegation to Lebanon to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and discuss ways to help Lebanese reconstruction.
Dina Habib Powell, an Egyptian-born former White House official who is now assistant secretary of state for promoting educational and cultural exchange, will lead the five-member delegation. The other four delegation members are: Jeffrey Feltman, US ambassador to Lebanon; John Chambers, president and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems; Yousif Ghafari, chairman of GHAFARI Inc.; and Ray Irani, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Occidental Petroleum Corp. In coming days, the group will ask Americans to donate money to a fund set up to help the Lebanese people, the White House said.
AP contributed to this report.