(photo credit: AP)
US Senator Arlen Specter carried a message Monday from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite Syria's announcement it had broken off its indirect talks with Israel.
Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania who travels frequently to both Israel and Syria, left Israel Monday after a short visit for a meeting with Assad.
Specter met with Olmert on Sunday, and said he "got a review of the Syrian negotiations from Olmert."
Specter refused to divulge the contents of the message Olmert asked him to take to Assad.
Syria said Sunday that the indirect peace talks through Turkey were halted because of Israel's offensive in Gaza. Specter said that this was not discussed with Olmert.
The senator has long been an advocate of pursuing talks with Syria, and in 2006 was criticized by the Bush administration for visiting Damascus, because it was felt that these visits gave Assad legitimacy.
"I believe the efforts to isolate Syria have not been successful," Specter said. "We ought to try to change things. President [Bill] Clinton tried to do a good job in 1995 and 2000, and I think it ought to be pursued."
He said that "there could be a great deal to gained" if an agreement with Syria were reached and the proper terms were met. He said the conditions included Syria allowing Lebanon to function as an independent nation and stop transferring Iranian arms to Hizbullah, cut off aid to Hamas, and see if there was a way "to stop Iranian influence."
Specter said he thought "it would be very difficult" to draw Syria out of Iran's orbit, because the ties go back "a long way." But, he said, "it is an evolving picture, and interests change. I think Syria would definitely like a closer relationship with the US. I have always been an advocate of diplomacy."
In addition to pushing for talks with Syria, Specter has for many years advocated talking with the Iranians. He took issue with a suggestion made earlier this month by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman that any dialogue with Iran be of a limited duration, perhaps three months, so Teheran didn't use it as cover to pursue their nuclear program.
"I think the dialogue ought to last however long the dialogue needs to last," he said. "I would hope that it would last and be successful, and lead to diplomatic relations, and peaceful terms, and to a new Iranian president who doesn't want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, that's what I would like."
Regarding whether the Iranians would use the talks as a cover to move their nuclear program forward, Specter said, "They are going to move that forward whether we like it or not."
Specter said that it needed to be communicated to the Iranians "in unmistakable terms that it is unacceptable for them to have a nuclear weapon, but I don't think we are well advised to say anything beyond that. No threats, no implied threats, just that it is unacceptable."
Regarding Gaza, Specter said that he did not think Israel was using disproportionate force, and said Israel was just seeking to remove the Hamas threat. He also said that he believed American support for the Israeli operation would continue, and that US President George W. Bush had made it clear that Washington saw Hamas as the provocateur.
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