Diplomatic officials: Syria must cut terror ties

Tell 'Post': Israel won't cede Golan until Damascus ends support for Hamas, Hizbullah.

Olmert Assad 298.88 (photo credit: AP [archive])
Olmert Assad 298.88
(photo credit: AP [archive])
Western diplomatic officials said Wednesday that reports in Syrian publications that Israel had passed a message to Damascus expressing a willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal missed a major part of the story: what the Syrians would have to do. According to the officials, who confirmed that messages from Jerusalem to Damascus and vice versa have been going through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office for months, Israel made clear that any peace agreement would necessitate Syria ending its support for Hamas and throwing Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal out of Damascus; ceasing support for Hizbullah; and distancing itself from Iran. Erdogan is scheduled to hold a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Saturday. The reports Wednesday appeared in Champress, an on-line Syrian news Web site, and in the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, which is independent but close to Assad's government. The Champress report quoted unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that Turkish mediation had succeeded and that Erdogan had informed Damascus that he'd won Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's acceptance of a full withdrawal from the Golan in return for a peace treaty with Syria. Al-Watan quoted "informed sources" as saying Erdogan had contacted Assad on Tuesday morning to relay the same news. Neither report specified how much of the Golan Israel was prepared to return. The Syrian government on Wednesday evening reportedly confirmed the reports. Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban told Al-Jazeera television that Olmert had informed Turkey Israel was willing to give back the Golan in return for peace. "Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria," she said. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev did not categorically deny the reports, saying instead that "we don't make it our practice to comment on every report in the press or on an Internet site. "Our position is clear and was articulated by the prime minister when he was interviewed before [Pessah]," Regev said. "We want peace with the Syrians, and they know what we expect from them." In an interview to Yediot Aharonot over the weekend, Olmert was asked whether he was willing to stand by the "deposit" given by former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak to Assad's father, Hafez Assad, that Israel would eventually withdraw from the Golan in return for peace. "What I can say is that I'm very interested in peace with the Syrians, I'm working on it, and I hope my efforts will ripen into significant progress. I promise that in issues between us and Syria, they know what I want from them, and I know well what they want from us," Olmert said. One Israeli diplomatic official said that in a country where the press is very tightly controlled, it was necessary to ask why the Syrians had an interest in letting the story out now. The official speculated that the reason may be linked to the congressional hearings in Washington scheduled for tomorrow, in which US Intelligence officials are widely expected to testify that North Korea was helping Syria build a plutonium-fueled reactor prior to Israel's strike on Syria on September 6. According to this official, Syria - by raising expectations of some kind of possible deal with Israel - was trying to divert attention from that testimony, which is likely to harden congressional attitudes even further against Damascus. AP contributed to this report.