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(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel does not want war with Syria, and does not believe Syria wants war either, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday.
At the same time, he said that the fact that neither side was interested in war did not automatically open the door to immediate negotiations.
Speaking to EU ambassadors, Olmert said he was not concerned about an imminent war with Syria, but that he was unhappy with the very public discussion about the matter, which itself created a dangerous and unnecessary "momentum."
Olmert said that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted to use negotiations with Israel as a way to conduct a dialogue with the US, which is why Assad was insisting the US mediate any talks with Israel.
Olmert said that when Assad speaks about making peace with Israel, he means making peace with US President George W. Bush, and that Israel was just a tool to make this happen.
Olmert, according to participants at the meeting, said Israel would be "very interested" if Assad said he was willing to hold "direct, unconditional bilateral talks." The prime minister said that he would be willing to hold negotiations without any preconditions from either side.
Also on Thursday, the United Nations' special envoy to the Middle East, Michael Williams, told Reuters that Syria had signaled a willingness to change its relationship with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas if progress were made toward a peace deal with Israel.
"The impression I got from my visit to Damascus was that if there was progress in terms of establishing a peace track, then we would see some changes in Syrian behavior on the three issues, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas," Williams was quoted as saying.
Olmert has said in the past that Israel would sit down with Syria if it severed ties with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. Senior sources in the Prime Minister's Office would not say whether his call Thursday for talks with Syria without any preconditions from either side meant he would be willing to sit down with Assad even if Syria continued to allow a flow of arms to Hizbullah, was tightly aligned with Iran, and housed the headquarters of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, said in an interview published on Thursday in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that she would not confirm rumors of secret discussions between Israel and Syria. She stressed that Syria supported Hizbullah, was tied closely with Iran, and refused to recognize the independence of Lebanon, and that peace with Syria would necessitate the clarification of those issues as well.
Regarding the Palestinian track, Olmert - according to a participant in the meeting - spoke extensively about what the PA needed to do to combat terrorism and to grant the Palestinians a higher level of services.
He said Hamas was clearly "not part of the diplomatic game," and that any recognition of Hamas - even tacitly, as was being discussed by some parties in Europe - would rule out any chance of moving forward with the Palestinians.
Olmert said that if there was an end to terrorism emanating from the West Bank, and if the PA demonstrated a sincere effort in stopping terrorism, the timetable toward the establishment of Palestinian state would be shortened.
At the same time, he reiterated Israel's position that it was too early to begin discussing final status negotiations, and that what was needed was to continue taking "one step at a time."
On Wednesday, Olmert took a secret trip to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, Channel 2 reported Thursday night.
The talks took place ahead of Olmert's planned meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, and a few weeks after he met with Abdullah at a summit in Sharm e-Sheikh along with Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Prime Minister's Office would not disclose any of the content of the meeting, or even confirm that it took place. The last time Olmert made a secret visit to Jordan was in the fall of 2006, when he reportedly met there with Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan.
At his meeting with the EU ambassadors, Olmert said the moderate Arab countries needed to "provide an umbrella of support" for the Israeli-Palestinian political process.
In a related development, the State Department announced that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be postponing a trip to Israel scheduled for next week, the second time she has canceled such plans in the past two months.
The State Department said the trip was delayed largely due to logistics, since she will now be visiting the region along with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in August.
Bush announced their trip in speaking to the press about Iraq Thursday morning, explaining that they would be traveling to shore up support for his Iraq strategy.
"They will meet with our allies, reemphasize our commitment to the International Compact of Sharm e-Sheikh, reassure our friends that the Middle East remains a vital strategic priority for the United States," he said.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had few details about the new trip, but said that Jerusalem and Ramallah would be included.
He rejected the suggestion that this indicated a lessening of US attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. "Secretary Rice, on a daily basis, is engaged on this issue," he said. "It would in no way signal a diminution in her focus or the amount of energy that she's going to apply to try to move forward the Israeli-Palestinian track and the Arab-Israeli track."
Capitol Hill insiders said the White House wanted Rice to focus on the Iraq effort in the coming weeks as Bush tries to stem the flow of Republicans breaking ranks with him over the war.
Middle East expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy questioned how much the Palestinians would be able to progress on the big-picture issues of a "political horizon" during a meeting with Rice. Abbas is seeking to stabilize the government that he created after ousting Hamas following its takeover of Gaza, and Makovsky said of that government, "I don't think it's well-placed right now to... commit to a grand political horizon for a final status peace agreement."
Until things become clearer, he said, "Nobody wants the secretary of state to waste her time."
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.