Says Assad offer is attempt to deflect threat posed by Lebanon tribunal.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
The confusion among Israeli diplomatic and intelligence officials on how to handle Syrian peace overtures continued Tuesday when, in a briefing at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni questioned whether Syrian President Bashar Assad was truly interested in peace or merely in negotiations.
At the same briefing, Foreign Ministry Diplomatic Research Department head Nimrod Barkan said that Syria was "interested in entering negotiations in order to alleviate international pressure."
But Foreign Ministry officials said Barkan was not endorsing the view of Military Intelligence Research Division head Yossi Baidatz, who told the same panel on Monday that he believes Assad is sincere. Mossad chief Meir Dagan told them the opposite last week, saying the Syrian leader should not be taken seriously because his country was preparing for war with Israel.
"Syria is sending signals it wants negotiations and we are obligated to ask ourselves whether Assad wants only negotiations or if he wants peace at the end of the process," Livni said.
"The Syrians want to negotiate because it helps their situation and aids their effort to overcome the international threats against them, but we have to ask ourselves what we would get at the end of a diplomatic process," she said.
Livni said Syria's immediate motivation was fear of the international tribunal investigating of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. She said Damascus was worried the tribunal would implicate top Syrian officials and endanger the its regime. She added that Syria had no intention of abdicating its power over Lebanon.
Regarding what Israel could achieve in talks with Syria, Livni said it would demand "a package deal" that would include disconnecting Syria from the axis of evil and "negative elements" like Hamas and Hizbullah.
"The question of what we get in return is fundamental, not what territory we would give," Livni said. "So before we enter negotiations, we must examine the situation from all angles, its dangers and what could be achieved at the end of the process.
In what opposition MKs saw as criticism of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Livni said it was important the Syrian issue be handled discretely and not publicly.
Barkan said he doubted that Syria would be willing to concede power in Lebanon, stop supporting terrorist organizations or break its ties with Iran.
"Syria is part of a chain of radical countries, and these countries see Syria as the weak link in the chain because they are connected to the chain for their own political interests and not for ideological reasons," he said.
Regarding the Palestinians, Livni said Israel needed to give Fatah a package of "socio-economic options" that could be marketed to the Palestinian people as an alternative to what Hamas offers them in the next election.
Regarding Teheran, Livni predicted the UN sanctions approved on Saturday would harm the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The panel endorsed a proposal by committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi to hold seven sessions a year with key government and military officials that would be open to the press for the first time.
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