PM tries to jump-start talks with Syria
Opening up hope for some sudden progress on the Syrian front, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a verbal message to Syria on Wednesday, when he told French President Nicolas Sarkozy he would be happy to resume peace talks with Syria anytime, anywhere and without preconditions, a government source said.
The two leaders spoke at the ElysÃ©e Palace in Paris, the day before Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to hold his own meeting in Paris with Sarkozy.
The prime minister's message to Syria comes as ties between Israel and Turkey, which facilitated indirect talks between Israel and Syria during the tenure of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, are strained.
Syria and Israel held four rounds of indirect peace talks without making headway.
No similar negotiations have been conducted with Syria since Netanyahu took office in March of this year. But as peace talks with the Palestinians have hit a dead end, it has been speculated that Netanyahu is turning to Syria as a more likely negotiating partner.
On Tuesday in Brazil, President Shimon Peres said, "I call from here to President Assad: come, enter direct negotiations with us immediately. With no mediations, with no preconditions, with no levels, and with no delay."
Government sources would not comment on whether any new Syria talks would be direct or indirect, nor would they speculate on whether France would lead such talks.
On Wednesday, according to AFP, Assad gave a nod in Israel's direction when he said, "We do not put forward conditions on making peace."
But in the same breath, he added that, "The essence of peace is not just negotiations but rather, resistance as well." Assad said armed conflict and peace talks were parts of the same "axis" to recover legitimate Palestinian rights.
He was speaking at a conference of Arab political parties and his comments were carried by state-run SANA news agency.
Syria is allied with Hamas and Hizbullah as well as Iran, all of which want to destroy Israel.
Still, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, "It is possible and important to negotiate with Syria. In any situation we have to preserve our security interests, but we must not treat lightly the peace signals that have come from Damascus of late."
In Paris, when asked by Sarkozy if he would be willing to talk with Syria, Netanyahu said he would be pleased to hold such talks.
According to a government source, they were joined by National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and his French counterpart.
Tensions have sparked lately between France and Israel over French demands that Israel halt all construction in West Bank settlements. France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is scheduled to visit Israel next week, further upset Israel by commenting that he believed Israelis no longer aspired to peace.
A source close to Netanyahu who was in the palace during the meeting said, however, that "it was a very good meeting between Bibi and Sarkozy. It was serious and strong. It was an hour and 50 minutes in the private residence of Sarkozy, which is rare."
Afterward Sarkozy walked Netanyahu to his car and hugged him.
The source said that such a move was unusual, and noted that former French president Jacques Chirac did not take this additional step when Netanyahu met with him earlier this year.
"Bibi and Sarkozy have met many times and this was the best one. I guess Sarkozy wanted to give Bibi the maximum because he felt bad about what Kouchner said and all the bad press Bibi has been getting. Bibi also met before with the French finance minister, Christine Legard, about economic relations," a source said from Paris.
Israel Radio reported that Sarkozy telephoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while he was meeting with Netanyahu and asked Abbas to begin negotiations immediately.
In a formal statement it issued after the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office said, "The two leaders discussed the most pressing tasks on the international agenda, in particular, the ways to speedily relaunch the Middle East peace process."
It added that Sarkozy and Netanyahu "agreed to extend all efforts to that end, and to maintain close contact in this regard. The Iranian nuclear issue was also discussed in light of the latest developments. The president and the prime minister also expressed satisfaction at the excellent bilateral relations between France and Israel, and at the increased cooperation between the two countries."
Netanyahu arrived in Paris after he held a private meeting with US President Barack Obama in the White House late Monday night. The last-minute scheduling of that conversation, as well as the media blackout that surrounded the talk, fueled media speculation in Israel of a breakdown in relations between the two leaders.
It was a spin that was denied both by the White House, Netanyahu, his spokespeople and advisers, as well as by Barak.
After landing in Israel on Wednesday evening, Barak called Netanyahu's meeting with Obama "good" and "constructive."
"The meeting with US President Barack Obama was good, important and constructive. It created a joint basis for advancing the peace process in order to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians," Barak said, adding that he did not understand why the media reports on the meeting were so negative.
The defense minister went on to praise Netanyahu for keeping the details of the meeting confidential.
"Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is showing true leadership and responsibility by not revealing the details of his one-on-one meeting with President Obama," said Barak.
Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told army radio, "There was a positive meeting, the relationship is sound, the meeting was long and good."
"Speculations should not be made according to the form; the substance is what's significant," Hauser added.
Channel 2 reported that Obama told Netanyahu aides after the meeting, "We spoke freely and openly. The discussion was positive. We still have a lot of work to do. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to tell my two daughters a bed-time story."
Channel 2 added that Bibi's aides had pleaded with the White House to deny the negative headlines the meeting had spun in Israel.
A senior source in the White House told all three channels: "Obama and Netanyahu agreed on proactive steps in the short-term. Netanyahu said in the meeting that he is not trying to play any games to avoid a diplomatic process."
According to the source, Netanyahu told Obama, "I don't just want a peace process for the sake of a process, I want progress that will lead to an agreement with the Palestinians."
"They agreed to give an immediate umbrella to help Abu Mazen [Abbas]," the source added.
AP contributed to this report.