Israel confirms contacts with Syria

Foreign ministry skeptical whether Assad wants peace or just recognition.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who in recent months has mixed comments about peace with threats of war, intended with his speech to the Syrian parliament on Tuesday to push off the dangers of a war this summer, according to in-depth evaluations of his speech in Jerusalem. According to these government assessments, performed on Wednesday, although Assad was intentionally vague, it was clear that he wanted to send a message that there was no threat of a war with Israel in the short term. Another point that emerged clearly from the speech, according to the assessments, was that it came in response to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's interview last week with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station, in which he called for direct negotiations. While ruling out such talks, Assad - according to these assessments - offered three options to kicking off negotiations, and in so doing demonstrated some flexibility. The first option is an Israeli announcement that it would agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights; the second option is that Israel provide "certain guarantees," such as the pledge allegedly given by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to Assad's father, Hafez Assad, in which he supposedly unofficially gave his word that Israel would withdraw from the Golan in return for a complete peace agreement with Syria; and the third option would be to begin talks through a third-party mediator. Israeli government officials said that Assad's conditions were unacceptable, and that Israel was interested in direct negotiations with Damascus, without any pre-conditions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that over the last few months, third parties had relayed messages between the two countries. "Different parties have been used to send messages. This is not new. It has been going on for quite some time," Regev said. "The problem is not the lack of good people offering their good offices. The problem appears to be with the policy goals of the regime in Damascus. "While it is possible that they talk about peace, that's all it is - talk. They are in fact playing the Israeli card cynically, in attempts to solve their diplomatic problems with the countries of Europe and North America without any real intentions to change their relationship with Israel," he said. Turkey is widely believed to be one of the countries playing a role in delivering messages, and diplomatic officials confirmed Wednesday that Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, met in Ankara about a month and a half ago with top advisers to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has consistently expressed interest in playing a mediating role between Damascus and Jerusalem. In other diplomatic developments, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met in Jerusalem Wednesday with Olmert, President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. The meetings come in advance of Thursday's Quartet meeting in Lisbon, the first to be attended by the new Quartet Middle East envoy, Tony Blair. Solana, speaking at a press conference in Ramallah after meeting with Abbas, said, "Some initiatives are going to be taken in the coming days that may lead to the dream of all of us, especially if the Palestinians start a political process." He also said he believed a new momentum might be created, and that the chances of Israel and Palestinians moving together "are becoming better." Peres said at his meeting with Solana that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who identify with Hamas must not be allowed to determine the future of the entire Palestinian population. Greer Fay Cashman and AP contributed to this report.