Sarkozy to urge Assad today to open direct talks with Israel

Sarkozy to urge Assad to

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to urge his Syrian counterpart to open direct talks with Israel, when the two men meet in Paris on Friday. While the US has focused mostly on jump-starting the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, France has recently spent a lot of its energy on the Syrian track, which it believes is a critical key to Middle East peace. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Sarkozy during a meeting in the French capital that he would speak with Syrian President Bashar Assad "anytime, anywhere" and "without preconditions." A government source clarified that the prime minister would be willing to talk directly with Assad, something that has not happened since Ehud Barak was in the post 10 years ago. Netanyahu himself has never spoken directly with Syria. Ehud Olmert held four rounds of indirect talks with the Syrians when he was prime minister, which were brokered by Turkey. But the Turkish-Israeli relationship has recently become strained, opening the door to speculation that France could mediate any new talks. The Prime Minister's Office on Thursday declined to comment on the possibility. Looking to jump into the game of Middle East peacemaking, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told Army Radio on Thursday that his country would be willing to broker Israeli-Palestinian talks. But with both Netanyahu and Assad meeting separately with Sarkozy this week, France has held center stage in the process of late. The Prime Minister's Office denied, however, reports that Israel has passed to Sarkozy a written message for Assad. It also rejected an Al-Arabiya report that Netanyahu has said that Israel is willing to cede the Golan Heights. Vice Premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that such reports were "nonsense." The prime minister "is ready to resume the negotiations without preconditions. Without preconditions means that everyone will come and raise their demands. The Syrians will say we want you to withdraw fully to the borders of June 4, 1967, and we can say we would like to keep the Golan in our hands," Shalom told an audience at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. "To say that we will accept from day one their demands, then what do we need the negotiations for?" he asked. "It was the same with Egypt and the same with Jordan. Let's negotiate, not only in order to negotiate, but [to have] real negotiations." Shalom said he hoped that Assad was not exploiting the idea of Israeli-Palestinian talks to curry favor with the United States and Europe. The Syrian peace track to date has differed from the process that lead to deals with Egypt and Syria, Shalom said. Both Egypt and Jordan were willing to renounce violence, whereas Syria has continued to support terrorism against Israel. "It's like I would tell every one of you that I would like to have peace, but at the same time I'll have someone wait outside to kill you. It looks a bit strange," he said. On Wednesday in Syria, Assad said he would be willing to talk with Israel without preconditions, but he added that peace could also be obtained through "resistance." And he has no intention of breaking his ties with Iran, he said. A source in Jerusalem said that the prospects of talks with Syria were very real, but that the countries were very far from resolving the issues that divide them. One source said that any substantive progress could only be made through private talks. If the talks are public, then the political realities in both countries would make it hard for the two leaders to finalize an agreement.