Israel dismisses Syria's latest offer of peace negotiations as 'mere words'

The Prime Minister's Office remained unimpressed Saturday night by even more Syrian negotiation overtures, saying that what is still needed from Damascus are actions indicating a change of heart, not mere words. The comments came a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad called on Israel to accept his proposal for opening peace negotiations, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said that the return of the Golan Heights was not a precondition to talks. "Israel has stated that we are always willing to talk peace," sources in the Prime Minister's Office said. "But the Syrian government cannot just say they want peace, they have to show with actions that they are serious." Among the actions that Israel was waiting to see, the official said, were an end to the transfer of arms to Hizbullah, an end to the backing of Hamas and an end to letting Damascus-based Hamas head Khaled Mashaal "do whatever he pleases." Assad, in an interview published Friday with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said, "I urge Olmert: 'Take the risk and discover if we are lying or not.'" In addition, Assad called on the US and Europe to conduct direct talks with Syria and with Iran "if they want to reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis in Iraq and to other disputes in the Middle East." Assad stressed that Damascus would be wiling to cooperate with Washington since "if we don't solve the problems on Iraq, Lebanon and between Israelis and Palestinians, the neighboring states will pay a heavy price." When asked about the Holocaust denial conference held this week in Iran, the Syrian president said, "Europe has a Holocaust complex - we don't because we didn't do it." Moallem, meanwhile, told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, that Syria was a potential partner in stabilizing the region, and referred at one point to "the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel." Moallem said that although Syria hoped to recover the Golan Heights, it was not setting this as a precondition for dialogue. "A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," he said. Moallem denied that Syria was seeking greater power in Lebanon as the price for its help in Iraq. "This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon,"' Moallem said, adding that if America wanted dialogue, "you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability." Moallem said Syria wasn't shipping arms to Hizbullah and would "continue our cooperation" with the United Nations investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He added that Syria was "ready" to "achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners" with Israel. Ignatius wrote that the Syrian foreign minister also disclosed what he said was a previously unreported effort by Syria and Qatar to broker a compromise between Hamas and Fatah.