LONDON - The Arab peace initiative presents the best opportunity to address Israel's doubts about its acceptance in the region, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told his Syrian counterpart on Friday.
In talks with visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem at the Foreign Office, Miliband said US President Barack Obama's approach to the conflict presented a "historic opportunity" for peace between Israel and Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
"I believe we have a genuinely historic opportunity, but also a historic responsibility because of the new approach that's been taken by the Obama administration since January, an approach which I think is wholly welcome, which is fully engaged and which is clear and consistent. President Obama has defined peace between Israel and the Arab world as being in the American national interest, a very significant statement, and I repeat today that it is in the British interest as well," Miliband told Moallem.
Speaking after the meeting, Miliband said: "We discussed today the important issue of how new direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are triggered by a freeze on settlements, an issue which has rightly assumed prominence.
"But we've also discussed the need to address the grave doubts that exist, and fears that exist among many Israelis about whether or not they will be accepted in the region. And it's because of that fear amongst, other reasons, that I think the Arab peace initiative has particular significance and importance. With Senator George Mitchell going to Damascus tomorrow, it's been a particularly good time to have talks with Foreign Minister Moallem."
The foreign secretary spoke of the strengthening relations between Syria and the US, as reflected in the visit on Saturday by Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East for the Obama administration, saying it represented great potential for the region as well as for imposing serious responsibilities on all parties.
Miliband also said that Syria was is in a "unique position to influence Iranian policy choices."
The Islamic republic now had an opportunity to take its place in the community of nations, the foreign secretary said.
"My belief is that the potential for Iran to assume an appropriate place in the international system will never be more clearly articulated than it has been at the moment. There will never be a better opportunity for Iran to assume an appropriate place in the community of nations, and I think that it's very, very important that we make clear to the Iranian authorities the significance of this moment and the significance of the policy choices that the new government [in Teheran] makes, because there is a very clear offer on the table in respect of its nuclear but also wider regional perspectives, and I think it's very important that there are no illusions about the importance of the decisions they now affect," he said.
Friday's meeting focused on bilateral relations. Miliband expressed delight with the improving ties.
"The really excellent discussions that we've had today, I think, are testimony to the growing depth and breadth to the relationship between the UK and Syria," he said. "We've reviewed bilateral relations which I think are deepening on the economic and cultural front as well as on the political and diplomatic front."
The two men also discussed other regional issues, particularly Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
"We spent most of our time talking about the range of issues that are contemporary, current, important regarding the future of the Middle East, a region of the world that is vitally important to the UK and a region of the world in which Syria plays a pivotal role," Miliband said.
Britain and Syria both had strong interests in a stable, prosperous and peaceful Middle East, he said.
Moallem agreed with his British counterpart, adding that they had held "fruitful discussions."
Asked about the possible convening of a Middle East peace conference, Moallem expressed astonishment over the timing of the call, saying Israel maintained "anti-peace policies."
He also said that preparatory talks were of fundamental importance, as any failure would have dangerous repercussions for the region, "as what happened after the failure of Annapolis."