FM ready to negotiate with Damascus, only "without preconditions"; denies supporting 2-state solution.
By SHALHEVET ZOHAR, HAVIV RETTIG GUR, AP
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday toned down previous statements regarding peace prospects with Syria, telling Israel Radio he would be willing to immediately hold peace talks with Damascus, but only without preconditions.
Over the weekend, Liberman was quoted in an Austrian newspaper as saying Syria was not a partner for peace as it "hosts the headquarters of terror organizations" and "supports Iran's nuclear program." The foreign minister also recently told The Jerusalem Post that Israel doesn't "see any goodwill from the Syrian side, only the threats."
Syria recently said it would be willing to resume indirect peace talks with the new Israeli government as long as they focused on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
"I'd be glad to negotiate with Syria this evening, but without preconditions," Liberman said in the Sunday interview to Israel Radio.
"They say, first go back to the 1967 lines and give up the Golan. If we agree to that, what is there to negotiate?" he said.
Israel has held several rounds of talks with the Syrians, most recently, indirect negotiations mediated by Turkey last year.
In an interview published in Austria on Saturday, Liberman had said Syria was supporting Palestinian and Lebanese terror groups and therefore was not a partner for peace.
"We need to look at the reality. Even today, Syria hosts the headquarters of terror organizations such as Hamas and the [Islamic] Jihad," Liberman told the Austrian Kleine Zeitung newspaper.
"Syria supports Hizbullah and its arms trafficking into southern Lebanon. Syria supports Iran's nuclear program. That is why I cannot see in Syria a real partner for any type of agreement," Liberman was quoted as saying.
In Friday's Jerusalem Post , Liberman said Syria's deepening ties with Iran negated any justification for resuming the indirect talks with Damascus conducted by the last government.
"We don't see any goodwill from the Syrian side, only the threats, like 'If you're not ready to talk, we'll retake the Golan by military action,'" he told Post editors David Horovitz and Amir Mizroch in his first interview with an Israeli newspaper since taking over as foreign minister, the full version of which will be run in Tuesday's Independence Day supplement.
Liberman's comments to the Austrian paper drew condemnation from coalition MK Yuli Tamir (Labor), who said the Netanyahu government "proves time and again that it is being held hostage by Liberman, who drags Israel into dangerous regional conflicts."
Tamir accused Liberman of fomenting crisis after crisis. "Within one month as foreign minister, Liberman has managed to create a crisis with the EU, US and Egypt, and now he is heating the atmosphere with Syria," Army Radio quoted Tamir as saying.
Earlier this month, Liberman said he opposed any withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal with Syria.
But Liberman's statements to the media on the Syrian issue have been consistent.
"I am very much in favor of peace with Syria, but only on one basis - peace in return for peace," he told Channel 2 earlier this month, adding that there would be "no withdrawals from the Golan during my time and hopefully not at any time."
Syria's views on the matter can be gleaned from an interview given by Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq the day after Liberman's Golan comments.
"The day must come and we will liberate (the Golan Heights) by peace or war," Assad was quoted as saying. "When a citizen loses hope, he walks toward 'the resistance' in one way or anotherâ€¦ Hizbullah has an issue with the Israeli enemy and we have the same issue, and as a result we support it."
Since Hizbullah was a national party with a religious agenda that includes the Lebanese homeland, "it is natural that we would have good relations with it." Assad emphasized his support for the right to resist "Israeli occupation," and said that "the enemy does not want peace, and so what is the alternative or the parallel path to the peace process? It is the resistance."
The Olmert government had held indirect peace talks with Syria, but these were suspended following the launch of Operation Cast Lead in January.
Liberman also denied in his Sunday interview with Israel Radio the London-based Al-Hayat report, according to which he told Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman that he would agree to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The foreign minister also wouldn't confirm in his interview with Israel Radio whether Suleiman had indeed invited him to visit Egypt.
According to the newspaper's report published Saturday, Suleiman had called Liberman "very moderate" following last week's meeting with the Israeli minister, who told Suleiman that a two-state solution with the Palestinians was the only way to achieve peace and security in the region.
The report quoted a "reliable" but unnamed Egyptian official.
The meeting between Liberman and Suleiman took place during a series of meetings Suleiman held with Israeli leaders last week, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The official quoted by Al-Hayat said the meeting between the two was successful and achieved its objective.
Liberman also reportedly said that economic development of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was of utmost importance to the peace process.
The report also claimed that Israel's position on the situation in Gaza was that any renewed cease-fire with Hamas was conditional on the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, but that any prisoner exchange was on hold while the new Israeli government studies the issue. Suleiman reportedly told Israeli officials that the current quiet on the Gaza front was due to understandings between Egypt and Hamas.
Israeli leaders told Suleiman that the strengthening of Israeli-Egyptian relations was at the top of their agenda, the official said. Netanyahu was expected to visit Egypt after his late-May visit to Washington, he added.
Brenda Gazzar contributed to this report.
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