(photo credit: AP)
Syrian participation at the Annapolis peace summit next week would be a positive step that could "open the door" for full-fledged peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"I hope that Syria and Saudi Arabia come to the summit," Barak said in an interview with the Post ahead of his trip to the US Saturday night to attend next week's Middle East summit at the Annapolis Naval Academy.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the "key issue" on the summit's agenda, Barak said "it will be good for Israel" if Syria participates.
Barak is scheduled to meet with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday to discuss regional security issues. Barak was in Washington in October for talks with Gates and US defense chiefs.
"In principle it is important to keep the door open for the Syrians so that when the time comes we will be able to negotiate with them," he said.
Barak said he planned to do everything in his power to ensure that the summit would be successful. He has met in recent months several times with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and was a proponent of the decision to allow 500 armed Palestinian policemen to deploy in Nablus.
While Barak said there was a "high chance" that the summit would be successful, defense officials have warned that it is possible Palestinian terror groups will escalate their terror activity before, during and after the summit.
"There is a high chance that it [the summit] will succeed," he said. "It will begin the process. The real test will be when we discuss the core issues when the talks begin after the summit."
Barak said he did not believe a "wave of terror" would erupt in Israel if the summit failed. But he warned "inaction" could prove more dangerous than action. "All dialogue is important and we have a moral responsibility - from a security and diplomatic point of view - to find a peaceful way," he said.
Barak added that Israel did not plan on skipping over the first stage of the US-backed road map peace plan, which calls on the Palestinians to dismantle terror infrastructure in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"We are keeping for ourselves the right to operate and to fight terror," he said in reference to the Gaza Strip. "The first stage of the road map needs to be implemented. This is what is holding Gaza back."
Meanwhile Thursday, a group of hundreds of Jewish university students began what they billed as a "three-day march" around and through Jerusalem to encourage Olmert to make an agreement to divide the city in Annapolis.
They marched Thursday to the Western Wall and they will hold a rally in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Saturday night. The students said they would continue marching despite the rain and even if it would snow.
"If the summit addresses the need for compromises in Jerusalem, we will have succeeded, but if it ends in mere slogans, then we have failed and the extremists will only become stronger," said Nir Yanovsky, one of the leaders of the march.
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