'Israel doesn't want to bail Assad out'

Olmert believes Syria wants to improve int'l standing for Hariri investigation.

Israel is not interested in throwing Damascus a safety line to help it wiggle out of international isolation, senior government officials said Thursday. Syria's international standing is expected to get worse following the UN Security Council's decision Wednesday to establish a tribunal to prosecute suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. According to the officials, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to believe the Syrian regime is not genuinely interested in peace, but rather in a peace process that would improve its international standing. Syria is widely believed to have had a hand in the Hariri killing. Olmert, according to government officials, also feels that Israel cannot simultaneously focus on both a Syrian and a Palestinian track, and that at present it is more critical to try to move the Palestinian one forward. Despite this, the officials said, Israel was assessing whether a peace agreement with Syria would draw Damascus out of Iran's orbit, end its support for Hamas, stop arms transfers to Hizbullah, and bring about a reduction in Palestinian terrorism, but had not involved a third party in feeling out Damascus. The Jerusalem Post reported last Friday that an increasing number of policy-makers in Jerusalem were showing interest in discreetly gauging the seriousness of recent Syrian overtures. Government officials said Israel was exploring Syria's intentions through both intelligence and diplomatic channels. One senior official said it was not unlikely that a secret channel of some sort was being used with the Syrians. A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert constantly "reassesses" the situation with the Syrians. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters earlier this week that she also believed it was more urgent for Israel to push forward the Palestinian, rather than the Syrian, track. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Rice on Thursday on the sidelines of a conference in Vienna, hosted by Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, entitled "Women Leaders - Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East." According to Foreign Ministry officials, Livni and Rice did not discuss Syria. They did, however, talk about the meeting planned for next Thursday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Olmert's upcoming visit to Washington, scheduled for June 19. Among the other women who took part in the conference were Hira Talabani, the wife of the Iraqi president; Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi; Sheikha Haya Rashed al-Khalifa, the outgoing Bahraini president of the UN General Assembly; and Sumaira Malik, the Pakistani minister for women's development and youth affairs. Livni and Malik met for about 15 minutes, and discussed, according to Foreign Ministry sources, the need to broaden the scope of the "peace camp" to include additional moderate Islamic countries. Despite a number of high-profile meetings between Israeli and Pakistani officials over the last few years, Islamabad has shied away from establishing formal ties with Israel.