Despite Defense Minister Amir Peretz's recommendation that Israel consider the peace overtures made by Syrian President Bashar Assad over the weekend, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated Sunday that now was not the time to begin negotiations with Syria. "We have to ask the question," Olmert said at the weekly cabinet meeting, "why is Assad making these declarations specifically today, after the publication of the Baker report in Washington, after President [George W.] Bush took a firm stance on the subject, and when the entire international community is demanding that the Syrians stop stirring up war and pitting its forces against the Saniora government in Lebanon? Is this right, when the whole international community seeks to put pressure on Khaled Mashaal in Syria?"
Don't spurn Syria's overtures (opinion)
All's quiet on the Syrian front
Olmert seemed, however, to be most concerned about pressure from the American side, contending that at a time "when the President of the United States - Israel's most important ally, with whom we have a system of strategic relations - is struggling from every angle...against all the forces that want to impede him," Israel had no right to "do the opposite" and negotiate with an enemy country.
Reporting to the cabinet that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier returned from his visit to Damascus "disappointed," the prime minister indicated that conditions were not ripe for peace talks.
He emphasized that before Israel begins developing new policies, "it is advisable to weigh things with restraint and caution."
Peretz, also speaking at the cabinet meeting, earlier called Assad's peace offers "a topic worthy of serious examination," adding that "we need to look into it."
The comments came a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad called on Israel to accept his proposal for opening peace negotiations, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said that the return of the Golan Heights was not a precondition to talks.
Yet the Prime Minister's Office remained unimpressed Saturday night, saying that what was needed from Damascus were actions indicating a change of heart, not mere words.
"Israel has stated that we are always willing to talk peace," sources in the Prime Minister's Office said. "But the Syrian government cannot just say they want peace, they have to show by their actions that they are serious."
Among the actions Israel was waiting to see, the official said, were an end to the transfer of arms to Hizbullah, an end to the backing of Hamas and an end to letting Damascus-based Hamas head Khaled Mashaal "to do whatever he pleases."
In an interview published Friday with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad said, "I urge Olmert: 'Take the risk and discover if we are lying or not.'"
In addition, Assad called on the US and Europe to conduct direct talks with Syria and with Iran "if they want to reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis in Iraq and to other disputes in the Middle East."
Assad stressed that Damascus would be willing to cooperate with Washington since "if we don't solve the problems in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as between Israelis and Palestinians, the neighboring states will pay a heavy price."
When asked about the Holocaust denial conference held this week in Iran, the Syrian president said, "Europe has a Holocaust complex - we don't because we didn't do it."
Moallem, meanwhile, told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, that Syria was a potential partner in stabilizing the region, and referred at one point to "the noble cause of peace between Syria and Israel."
Moallem said that although Syria hoped to recover the Golan Heights, it was not setting this as a precondition for dialogue. "A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," he said.
Moallem denied that Syria was seeking greater power in Lebanon as the price for its help in Iraq. "This is not a deal. This is not, 'We will do this if you give us Lebanon,'" Moallem said, adding that if America wanted dialogue, "you need to reassure us about your good intentions concerning our stability."
Moallem said Syria wasn't shipping arms to Hizbullah and would "continue our cooperation" with the United Nations investigation of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He added that Syria was "ready" to "achieve a deal on exchanging prisoners" with Israel.
Ignatius wrote that the Syrian foreign minister also disclosed what he said was a previously unreported effort by Syria and Qatar to broker a compromise between Hamas and Fatah.