Israel-Syria - now the arguing begins

Olmert booed when speaking of Golan at "Masa" event; PM says talks with Abbas to go on unabated.

syrian fm moallem 298.88 (photo credit: )
syrian fm moallem 298.88
(photo credit: )
Israel and Syria began sparring Thursday over what they expect the other to give up for a peace agreement, a day after the announcement that indirect negotiations between the countries are under way and two weeks before the talks are to resume in Turkey. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has kept Israel's expectations of Damascus vague, both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak began sending out more concrete signals on Thursday on what Israel believes Syria needs to do in the framework of a peace agreement - and the Syrians were not pleased with what they heard. Olmert, however, remained short on specifics, telling visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that "the Syrians know what we want and we know what they want." He also told EU ambassadors in a meeting he held with them that Israel was keen on moving Iran out of the "axis of evil." In the evening, a number of booing protesters, waving banners reading "The people are with the Golan," interrupted Olmert during a speech he was making in Latrun. The prime minister took a moment to compose himself, and then replied: "The Golan is the most beautiful place that I have recently visited. Let's put politics aside." He was speaking at an event marking the end of the Jewish Agency's MASA youth aliya program. Livni was more explicit than Olmert about what she wants from Damascus. Before her meeting with Kouchner, she said, "Israel has always aspired to peace with its neighbors, and the negotiations with Syria are a part of that. But the Syrians must understand that this involves their complete renunciation of support for terror by Hamas, Hizbullah, and Damascus's problematic connections with Iran." Barak also commented on the negotiations, saying at an IDF ceremony at Beit Hanassi that moving Syria out of the circle of hostile countries has long been an important Israeli goal. "But we have to be realistic," he said. "Peace will be reached only from a position of strength and security. Both sides - and I emphasize both sides - will have to make painful concessions as part of an agreement, and both sides know that. The Syrians, just like us, know that concessions run both ways." Barak attempted to sober excitement over the announcement of the talks by saying a great distance still had to be traveled before an agreement could be reached. Both Livni's and Barak's comments elicited sharp responses on Al-Jazeera from Syrian Information Minister Muhsin Bilal, who said of Livni's comments about the need for Syria to cut itself off from Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran, "When they make these demands, they are setting conditions and the issue of peace, the peace process does not require prior conditions." Referring to Barak's statements about the need for both sides to make painful concessions, Bilal added that there was nothing painful in Israel returning the Golan, because it was Syrian land. "These conditions have already been rejected, as is the phrase 'painful concessions,' since what the Syrians are demanding is their right," he said. Bilal also reiterated what Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said a day earlier, that Olmert had committed Israel to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. "He knows that the whole of the Golan Heights will be returned to Syria and that Israel will withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967," Bilal said. The Prime Minister's Office denied that any such guarantees were made. Olmert, meanwhile, tried to dispel concerns - including those voiced in Washington - that the announcement of a Syrian peace track would make progress on the Palestinian track more difficult, telling Kouchner that he intended to conduct negotiations with both parties, "with neither coming at the expense of the other." Meanwhile, Ilan Mizrahi, the former head of the National Security Council who backed contact with Damascus a year ago, said it was unrealistic to think that Syria would immediately cut off ties with Iran, or even with Hizbullah and Hamas. Rather, he said, what was possible was a gradual cooling of the ties, something that could be evidenced in a greater rapprochement between Syria and the non-radical Arab states, and perhaps in less blanket support for Hizbullah. "This is a process," he said, "and it is dependant on a number of different factors." One of those factors was Iran itself, and Mizrahi said it would be interesting to see whether Teheran took steps now to get even closer to Syria. The former NSC head said that while Damascus would likely not immediately cut off ties with Iran, he was in favor of Israeli negotiations with Damascus because it could eventually lead to a process that would significantly dilute the Iranian-Syrian relationship. Meanwhile, government sources said there was no need at this time to upgrade the level of the Israeli delegation involved in the negotiations, since the talks were still between the Israeli delegation and the Turks, and not directly between Israel and the Syrians. Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman are representing Israel in the discussions. Though neither are considered Syria experts, they both enjoy the prime minister's complete confidence. Damascus is being represented by Riad Daoudi, a legal expert in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and Sami Taqi, head of a think tank in Damascus that is close to the government. The Turkish mediator is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leading foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu. Government sources said there would likely be no need to upgrade Israel's delegation until direct talks with the Syrians began, something Olmert told the European ambassadors Thursday he hoped would take place in the near future.