'Renewing Syria peace talks a priority'

Barak: Taking Damascus out of extremist camp is a major objective; Assad: Israel dragging its feet.

assad abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
assad abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Renewing peace talks with Damascus is a priority for Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said over the weekend. "Israel views peace talks with Syria and taking Syria out of the extremist camp as a major objective of our policy," he told 80 foreign diplomats at Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday. Jerusalem was following developments in the North closely, Barak told the envoys, including the strengthening of Hizbullah with Syrian support and the "noises" coming from Damascus. "Israel is the strongest power in the region,' he said, "and this is what enables us to remain vigilant and also to seek a [diplomatic] settlement." Echoing Barak's comments, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio Friday that, "All efforts are being made to bring Syria to the negotiating table" to "sign a peace treaty." "We know exactly what the price would be," he added - namely, Israel's return of the Golan Heights. Ben-Eliezer would not disclose what results there had been, if any, from attempts to resume dialogue with the Syrians, but he confirmed that Barak was a party to the efforts. Ben-Eliezer's comments took on added significance as they came two days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted that secret contacts might be taking place with Damascus. Olmert told the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on Wednesday that Israel supported direct talks with Syria that could result in a peace treaty, adding: "That doesn't mean that when we sit together you have to see us," an apparent reference to the possibility of secret contacts. A week earlier, Olmert told a joint meeting of the Israeli and German cabinets in Jerusalem that he was ready to restart negotiations with Syria if Damascus would end its support for Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Since the Second Lebanon War, both Israel and Syria have declared readiness to renew negotiations and have exchanged messages through third parties, including Turkey, but there has been no public sign of movement. However, in his opening speech at the Arab Summit on Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad accused Israel of stalling on peace negotiations. "The foot-dragging Israel is displaying on the issue of peace with Syria for the return of the Golan Heights is not working in its favor and the passing time won't help it achieve better conditions in the future," he said. Assad accused Israel of rejecting every peace initiative offered over the last three decades. He singled out the 1991 Madrid conference and the 2002 Arab peace initiative, saying that Israel had responded to those proposals by massacring Palestinians, continuing settlement activity and building the West Bank security barrier. The Syrian president said Israel had used every possible chance to prove how uncooperative it was, and questioned how long Arab nations could keep offering Israel a land-for-peace proposal. Assad also said that peace was the only way for Israel to gain security, and "peace will not come except through withdrawal from occupied Arab land and giving back [Arab] rights." Israel was "exploiting the internal Palestinian divisions for its own benefit," he added. Assad warned that Arab countries might have to seek alternatives to the Arab peace initiative if Israel continued to reject it. The proposal offers Israel full peace with Arab nations if it withdraws from "occupied lands" and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendents. "The question is: Do we leave the peace process and initiatives hostage to the whims of successive Israeli governments, or do we search for choices and substitutes that can achieve a just and comprehensive peace?" Assad said.