Barak sends conciliatory signal as Mitchell meets Assad

Netanyahu ‘ready to enter Syria talks without preconditions’; US envoy meets with Assad in Syria; says US goal is "comprehensive peace."

Mitchell and Assad (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell and Assad
(photo credit: Associated Press)
As US envoy George Mitchell visited Damascus on Thursday to explore the possibility of restarting an Israeli-Syrian diplomatic track, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, during a tour of the north, spoke optimistically about eventual prospects for a breakthrough toward peace on that front.
“On the eve of Yom Kippur Israel is strong, self confident, ready and prepared for any possibility, alongside extending our hand in peace,” Barak said.
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“We intend on overcoming the hurdles in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and – alongside our readiness for all developments – believe that the time will come when it will also be possible to make a breakthrough for peace with Syria and Lebanon.”
Barak’s comments came as Mitchell stressed in Damascus that Israeli-Palestinian peace would not come at the expense of peace with Syria , and argued the current Israeli-Palestinian talks help advance the cause of regional peace.
“We believe very strongly that a foundation of goodfaith negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis can and should support the entire structure of comprehensive peace,” Mitchell said following his meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
“Absent that foundation – which is being set in place just now as we speak – anything that we would try to build with others in the region would not stand.”
Mitchell said he “assured” the president and foreign minister that these efforts “in no way contradicts or conflicts with our goal of comprehensive peace, including peace between Israel and Syria.”
Mitchell’s trip to Syria, which came on the heels of his visit to Egypt, Israel and Ramallah for the second round of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians earlier in the week, was the latest sign that the administration is trying to advance the Syrian track as well.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Channel 10 interview Thursday that there have been conversations between Israel and the US, and Syria and the US, “to determine whether there is a serious effort that could be undertaken.”
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remains ready to enter into peace talks with the Syrians without preconditions.
Some observers have suggested the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could spur Assad to restart peace negotiations of his own – he suspended indirect talks with Israel during the 2007 Gaza war – so that he doesn’t feel left out. Others, however, have predicted that the same concerns could lead him to play the role of spoiler.
Mitchell described his discussion Thursday as a “very useful conversation” and said he conveyed a “frank appraisal” of how Israeli-Palestinian talks have progressed.
“It is true that the parties still have profound differences, but I have been impressed by their sincerity and seriousness of purpose,” he said.
Mitchell was scheduled to go from Damascus to Beirut for meetings there with Lebanese leaders.