J'lem mulls US-led Mideast parley

Officials deny US change of heart on Israeli talks with Syria.

rice 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel, which has traditionally opposed international Middle East conferences, is not totally ruling out joining one organized by the US, diplomatic officials said Monday night. According to the officials, convening an international conference is "one of the ideas" that have been broached recently by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to extricate the diplomatic process from its current logjam. The idea is in the very early stages, the officials said, and Israel has not had to formulate a position on taking part in such a conference. The overriding idea, the officials said, was to get people together to have "common discussions." Any conference, the officials added, would not be in lieu of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian process. Also on Monday, senior American and Israeli officials denied a Haaretz report that the US has had a change of heart on Israeli talks with Syria, something the Bush administration has not welcomed in the past because of a desire to keep Damascus isolated. "I have absolutely no idea what that story is based on," US Ambassador Richard Jones said after addressing a conference at Bar-Ilan University. "I really don't." Jones also denied that the US had ever held Israel back from responding positively to Syrian overtures. He said Israel was skeptical of entering into negotiations because of its own interests. "The US is not stopping Israel, Israel's own assessment of the situation is what is stopping Israel," he said. It had become clear in his discussions with Israeli officials that Jerusalem did not trust Damascus, and thinks it is interested only in a peace process, and not a peace agreement, Jones said. Israeli officials had made it clear their concern was that if negotiations were started, and then broke down, "things will get worse then they are today." Jones also said that he was not aware that Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem discussed any topic other than Iraq at their meeting in Sharm e-Sheikh earlier this month. A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said that not only had there been no change in Israel's position that there was no reason to enter into a dialogue with Syria while it hosted terrorist organizations and supported Hizbullah and Hamas, but that the US has never told Jerusalem not to hold such talks. "At the most, they give advice," the official said, "and we don't always have to take their advice."