Assad: Not time for talks with Israel

Turkey wants to send team to J'lem to push Syria talks; PM, Netanyahu trade jabs over Golan issue.

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
With Turkey reportedly interested in sending a delegation to Jerusalem to talk to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the possibility of face-to-face talks with the Syrians, Syrian President Bashar Assad told Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper in an interview published Sunday that the time for direct talks has not yet arrived. Channel 1 reported Sunday evening that the Turks were interested in following up Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's meeting with Assad in Damascus on Saturday with a delegation to Jerusalem. This could not be immediately confirmed with Turkish diplomats in Tel Aviv. According to the report, it was likely that Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's leading foreign policy adviser, would lead the delegation. Davutoglu is believed to have been the Turkish middleman who has for months been conveying messages between Jerusalem and Damascus. The Turks are reportedly interested in trying to get direct talks off the ground by starting meetings between Israeli and Syrian foreign ministry officials, which would be a prelude to a possible meeting between Assad and Olmert. Assad, however, told Al-Watan shortly after he finished meeting with Erdogan that the time for direct negotiations had not yet arrived, and that Israel's willingness to cede the Golan Heights to Syria - a message he said he had received from Olmert - was only a "preliminary indication" that peace between the two states might materialize. Assad reiterated to Al-Watan that even if the Turkish efforts did bear fruit, Syria wanted the US to oversee negotiations. Assad has often stated that Damascus is against secret negotiations, saying any serious talks should be held in the public eye, while also insisting that the US would sponsor any such talks. Olmert has taken the opposite position, indicating that he favors low-key, behind-the-scenes talks. At a press conference a month ago with foreign journalists, Olmert said, "I [have] said indeed that I'm prepared to make peace with Syria. I hope that the Syrians are prepared to make peace with Israel, and I hope that the circumstances will allow us to sit together. That doesn't mean that when we sit together, you have to see us." Also in the Al-Watan interview, Assad denied that the facility in Syria destroyed by Israel on September 6, 2007 was a nuclear reactor. Assad asked rhetorically whether it was a logical move to build a nuclear reactor in the middle of the desert, knowing that satellites had full view of the area. He added that Syria would not pursue nuclear weapons "even if Iran would become nuclear." He said the facility was a military base, but denied any nuclear activity there. He said it was also illogical to believe Syria would use a nuclear weapon against Israel. "Where would we use it? On Israel, it would kill the Palestinians," he said. "I do not see this as logical." Assad added that wars in the region would continue to be of a conventional nature, and said this was true as far as Iran was concerned, as well. Even as very tentative diplomatic moves between Israel and Syria were taking place, Olmert traded jabs over the Golan issue Sunday with Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who accused the prime minister of amateurism. "The Golan must stay in our hands, because if we withdraw, we will receive Iran on our northern border," Netanyahu said in response to reports that Olmert had told Assad he was willing to withdraw from the Heights in exchange for peace. "I am very surprised that the prime minister is willing to give up the entire Golan Heights, even before negotiations have begun, in such an amateurish, reckless way... This is not how you build peace." Netanyahu's comment triggered a sharp response from Olmert's office. "In order to refresh Mr. Netanyahu's memory, he was the one [who] sent then-Syrian President Hafez Assad an American businessman [Ron Lauder] to relinquish the Golan Heights in Israel's name, before any negotiations had begun," read a statement issued from the Prime Minister's Office. "Even before the negotiations began, Netanyahu also gave up the city of Hebron and offered to give up to Arafat - whom he called 'friend' - large parts of Judea and Samaria within the Wye framework. He is not the one to teach the government [what constitutes] responsibility and good judgment," the statement continued. The statement concluded by saying Olmert would "persist in trying to achieve peace, and will do so in a reasonable and responsible manner, taking a stance that will ensure Israel's security." This statement prompted a further comment from Netanyahu, with his office responding that "despite Olmert's attempts to mislead the public, Netanyahu insisted on keeping the Golan Heights, and that was why the talks were stopped. It is ridiculous to be preached at by a serial conceder like Olmert, whose unilateral concessions harmed the security of the state." Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.