Peretz: Peace with Damascus a priority

PMO, Assad deny letter sent to Olmert offering talks without preconditions.

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Tuesday evening called for promoting diplomatic talks with Syria, Army Radio reported. Speaking to IDF troops on the northern border, the defense minister said that the Israeli need for reaching a peace agreement with Damascus took precedence over foreign interests in the region. Peretz added that Israel must take advantage of every opportunity for negotiations with Syria, and insisted that the government hold an emergency meeting on the subject. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed on one thing Tuesday: No secret missive was sent from Damascus to Jerusalem recently pledging a dramatic change in Syrian behavior. A report on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station said German officials gave Olmert a letter recently in which Assad offered to renew peace talks without preconditions or time limits, minimize the influence of Hamas leaders outside the Palestinian territories and prevent the flow of weapons to Hizbullah. In addition, according to the report, Assad claimed Syria would agree to the establishment of an international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, on the condition that the tribunal would not be allowed to summon or sentence high-ranking Syrian officials. Syria would also act to secure its border with Iraq, the report said. Were the report true, it would have indicated that Assad was willing to meet the requirements Olmert has set for negotiations. But, according to both leaders, there was no letter, and no promises. "There is no such proposal - nothing," Assad said during a visit to Moscow. Olmert's office echoed the sentiment, issuing a statement saying that "contrary to various reports, the prime minister has received no Syrian letter, neither from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier nor from anyone else." Steinmeier was in Syria two weeks ago, and Olmert was in Germany last week. According to officials in Jerusalem, the Al-Arabiya report was an "enhanced version" of a report Sunday night on Israel's Channel 2 that a third-party intermediary with the Syrians said Damascus was looking for a secret channel of communication with Israel. According to that report, the source said Syria had the capability to control Hamas, but not, as Israel maintains, Hizbullah, and that Syria was ready for cooperative endeavors in tourism and industry. Meanwhile, Assad, currently on a visit to Moscow, urged Russia to take a leading role in sponsoring peace talks in the Middle East, and denied that Russian weapons sold to Syria ended up in the hands of Hizbullah militants. Russia and Syria have long-standing economic and political ties. Last year, Moscow agreed to write off nearly three-quarters of Syria's $13 billion debt in a bid to increase economic relations between the two countries, and there was widespread speculation that one of the focuses of Assad's current trip was buying Russian arms. "Our cooperation has strengthened recently, and one of the aims of my visit is to widen that cooperation in different areas," Assad said at the start of talks in the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin hosted Assad for talks focusing on fighting between Palestinian factions and the political crisis in Lebanon - part of Moscow's effort to strengthen its role in the Middle East. "Russia could become the sponsor of the Middle East peace process and carry out this role effectively," Assad told journalists through a translator after his meeting with Putin. Assad claimed Israel was not genuinely interested in peace. "Our desire for peace remains the same... but the current Israeli government doesn't want peace," Assad said. Assad also denied claims that Russian weapons intended for Syria ended up in Hizbullah's hands. "If there was proof of that, we would not hide it, but such proof simply does not exist," he said. Russia has been a major weapons supplier to Syria, and Israel has shown Moscow proof that Russian weapons were used by Hizbullah in this summer's war. Asked about the recommendation of the US Iraq Study Group that the United States seek a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis by engaging its neighbors, including Iran and Syria, Assad said: "We are open for dialogue, but we are not ready to take instructions." Putin met last week with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who asked Moscow to use its influence on Syria, which backs Hizbullah. AP contributed to this report.