Israel: Assad not serious about peace

Officials: He says he wants US in talks, but he sides with Russians during a time of great tension.

assad in paris 224.88 (photo credit:)
assad in paris 224.88
(photo credit: )
Syria's rush to take advantage of the conflict in Georgia and the Russia-US rift to cozy up to Moscow seems to indicate that it is not interested in serious negotiations with Israel even with US participation, diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said on Thursday. The officials' comments came amid speculation that Israel and Syria would not renew indirect talks in Turkey next week, as scheduled, until after French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus next Wednesday and Thursday. The Israeli-Syrian track is expected to be one focus, but not the primary one, of the talks between Sarkozy and Syrian President Bashar Assad. The main agenda item is expected to be the situation in Lebanon. David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote Wednesday that advisers to Assad, as well as top French officials, said Syria would be ready for direct peace talks with Israel if the US and France would serve as co-sponsors. According to the report, Damascus would like to see a clear signal from the Bush administration that it supports the peace process. But Israeli diplomatic officials said that if indeed the Syrians were interested in intense US involvement, they had a strange way of showing it. "It is not at all clear what the Syrians want," one diplomatic official said. "They say that above all, they want American involvement in the talks with Israel, but then they side clearly with the Russians during a time of great tension with the US and NATO." Assad, during a visit last week to Moscow, bid for state-of-the-art Russian weaponry, and reportedly discussed placing advanced Russian missile batteries in Syria as a counterbalance to an agreement to place US missiles in Poland. While some have said the talk of a weapons deal was merely a ploy to pressure the US to get more involved in the talks with Israel, and others said Syria might be moving closer to Russia as a possible alternative to its current tight alliance with Iran, the diplomatic official said that sometimes it was necessary just to take things at face value, and see Syria's movement toward Russia as a sign that it was not all that interested in US sponsorship of talks. Also on Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, during a visit to Beirut, rejected the idea that Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon might be forced to stay there permanently. Some 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in a dozen refugee camps in Lebanon. "The refugees should have the right of return to their homeland and we are negotiating this with the Israelis. I have to say we are not [agreeing] with permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. We are against permanent resettlement," Abbas told reporters after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. The refugee question, along with the status of Jerusalem, remain the most difficult issues in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, a senior European diplomat based in Israel told The Jerusalem Post this week. According to the official, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have made little progress on this issue, with the Palestinians continuing to demand a "right of return" to pre-1967 Israel as well as to a new Palestinian state, and Israel rejecting that idea except for an undetermined number of"humanitarian" cases. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said this week that the "right of return" was incompatible with the creation of a Palestinian state. AP contributed to this report.