Barak says Golan is not Syria's top priority

Tells FADC that Turkey may not be able to finish the negotiation process, and that the US might have to take over.

barak press 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
barak press 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Turkey may not be able to see Israel and Syria through an entire negotiating process, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday morning, adding that at some stage, it might be necessary for the United States to move in and act as a broker. Syria, he said is still alert and concerned that Israel could launch an attack on the country this summer, and is continuing to strengthen its coordination with Hizbullah, both assisting in operational preparedness as well as continuing to supply the terror group with weapons. Nevertheless, Barak said that "Israel has a supreme responsibility to try and exhaust all of the possibilities to remove Syria from the cycle of aggression," adding that securing the Golan Heights was not at the top of the Damascus government's priorities. Instead, he said, the government is much more concerned with ensuring the continuity of [President Bashar] Assad's regime; blocking the international tribunal on the Hariri murder; pursuing international recognition of Syria's "special" role in Lebanon; and receiving badly-need aid from Western countries, similar to what Egypt has received over the years. Returning the Golan, Barak said, comes after those other four issues in Syria's priorities. Barak added that Israel had initially requested secret and direct talks with their Syrian counterparts, whereas Damascus had insisted upon indirect and overt talks. In any case, he estimated, it is highly unlikely that any agreement would be concluded by the end of the 2008 calendar year. Barak also offered an extensive overview regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip, informing the committee that "a few months ago" he had instructed the IDF to prepare a number of plans for possible scenarios and responses in the area. He offered the cabinet an explanation of what can and cannot be achieved in the proposed operations and what timelines were feasible for activity. "It's clear that we are on a collision course with Hamas," he said. He also said Hamas was acutely feeling the pressure of the continued closure on the Gaza Strip, and that "on the background of [that] pressure" Egypt has proposed an understanding, under which Egypt would take responsibility for stopping rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and smuggling, while Israel would commit to ceasing operations in Gaza. In return, Egypt expects that Israel would relax restrictions at the border crossings between Israel and Gaza, but any change in the status of the Rafah crossing would be conditional on progress toward the release of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit.