Assad in France: Let's resume talks

Sarkozy, Assad meeting k

assad sarkozy here kitty kitty 248.88 AP (photo credit: AP [file[)
assad sarkozy here kitty kitty 248.88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file[)
Following his meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad called for an immediate resumption of peace talks with Israel. "If [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's intentions are sincere … we can renew talks through the appropriate mechanisms," said Assad, stressing that Turkey had proven an experienced and capable mediator thus far and should broker the next round of talks between the two countries, despite the deepening rift between Ankara and Jerusalem. The Syrian president reiterated, however, that his country would not surrender what he termed its "rights," expressing doubt that the fine print of any agreement would bring Israel to "respect those rights" in practice. Damascus would also demand guarantees from Washington for any future deal with Israel, reported Israel Radio later on Friday, citing sources in Assad's entourage. The Syrian president's meeting with Sarkozy kicked off at Paris's Elysee Palace on Friday afternoon. Prior to the meeting, Assad stated that the talks would center on issues relating to Mideast peace, adding that "France must act" to ensure progress in the region. Meanwhile, in an interview published Friday in the daily Le Figaro, Assad was critical of what he termed the US "weak link" in Mideast peace efforts and urged President Barack Obama to lay out a plan of action for renewed peace talks. Assad's visit to Paris comes two days after that of Netanyahu, giving the impression that France was positioning itself for what it has long sought - a larger role in the push for Mideast peace. On Wednesday, Netanyahu told Sarkozy during a meeting in the French capital that he would speak with Assad "anytime, anywhere" and "without preconditions." However, a member of Assad's delegation in Paris told Israel Radio on Friday that Netanyahu's comments were a "public relations exercise." He added that Damascus wanted Ankara to resume mediation between Syria and Israel. A government source clarified that the prime minister would be willing to talk directly with Assad, something that has not happened since Defense Minister Ehud Barak was serving as prime minister 10 years ago. The Prime Minister's Office denied, however, reports that Israel had passed to Sarkozy a written message for Assad. It also rejected an Al-Arabiya report that Netanyahu had said that Israel was willing to cede the Golan Heights. Vice Premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that such reports were "nonsense." The prime minister "is ready to resume the negotiations without preconditions. Without preconditions means that everyone will come and raise their demands. The Syrians will say we want you to withdraw fully to the borders of June 4, 1967, and we can say we would like to keep the Golan in our hands," Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told an audience at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. "To say that we will accept from day one their demands, then what do we need the negotiations for?" he asked. The Syrian peace track to date has differed from the process that lead to deals with Egypt and Syria, Shalom said. Both Egypt and Jordan were willing to renounce violence, whereas Syria has continued to support terrorism against Israel. "It's like I would tell every one of you that I would like to have peace, but at the same time I'll have someone wait outside to kill you. It looks a bit strange," he said. On Wednesday in Syria, Assad said he would be willing to talk with Israel without preconditions, but he added that peace could also be obtained through "resistance." A source in Jerusalem said that the prospects of talks with Syria were very real, but that the countries were very far from resolving the issues that divide them. While the US has focused mostly on jump-starting the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, France has recently spent a lot of its energy on the Syrian track, which it believes is a critical key to Middle East peace. France's bid to revive peace efforts includes a trip to Israel and the West Bank in coming days by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Meanwhile, Kadima MK Nahman Shai criticized Prime Netanyahu's shift from the Palestinian peace track to the Syrian one on Friday, calling the prime minister's initiative "hasty and half-baked." Netanyahu "ostensibly" reaching out to Damascus is "only foreplay," asserted Shai, explaining that Israel was "rolling toward negotiations with Syria" without first taking measures to prepare the country's leadership, defense establishment and public for such a possibility. "If the prime minister were truly interested in peace talks with the Syrians, he would take a different course of action instead of hanging on to Assad's coattails on his way to meet with Sarkozy," Shai concluded in a press statement. staff contributed to this report.