'Syria ready for open talks with Israel'

Assad urges Golan withdrawal; says he has received messages from Olmert.

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad's demand that Israel agree to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before negotiations can take place through a third party does not meet basic Israeli requirements, Israeli diplomatic officials said Tuesday night. The officials were responding to a speech Assad gave to the Syrian parliament on Tuesday after being sworn in for a second seven-year term as president. Assad, in his speech, called on Israel to respond publicly to peace overtures from Damascus. "The Israelis should remember that the price of peace is lower than the cost of war," Assad said. But, he said, Syria wanted "certain guarantees" from Israel - namely a promise for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal, before negotiations would begin. "There must be guarantees to return the whole land," Assad said. "We cannot enter negotiations without knowing what they're going to be about. They must present a word of trust or something written." When Israel commits to the Golan withdrawal, there can be channels with Israel through a third party, he said. After that, there can be "direct, open negotiations in the presence of an honest broker." "We are listening carefully to what he said, and waiting to get a full translation before responding formally," one Israeli official said. "We have stated repeatedly that we are more than willing, without prior conditions, to sit and talk. But the first thing we heard from him was a very clear set of preconditions." Assad, in his speech, said, "A number of delegations that have visited Syria have delivered messages from the Israeli prime minister by which he is seeking peace. One even came during the Second Lebanon War. We consider this a positive step, but our official policy is against a secretive channel of negotiations." The Syrian leader said his country's stance was "clear" and that what was required to proceed with negotiations was "a formal announcement for the aspiration of peace [made by Israel]." Furthermore, he stressed, any peace negotiations would be based on Israel returning to pre-1967 borders. Such conditions would need to be made clear by any "serious" peace envoys, he said. Assad demanded "minimum" evidence that Israel was willing to formalize a peace agreement, citing the "Rabin Pledge," a promise allegedly made by late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, in which he unofficially gave his word that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for complete peace with Syria. Although the pledge was never documented, Syria still holds it as a platform for potential talks. Assad also made reference to recent mediation efforts by a third party, but did not mention the party by name. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be a reference to Turkey, which in recent months has "tested the waters" in Damascus and Jerusalem about a resumption of some sort of negotiations. Assad also reiterated his support for Hizbullah and Hamas, without specifically naming them. "The national and humanitarian tragedies we are witnessing in Iraq and the foreign troops' inability to provide the minimum security must be an important lesson to all those who think that security can come at the hands of foreign troops," he said. Recent events had "increased our commitment to making [armed] resistance a way of life and our choice for securing our rights and regaining our land," he said. Also Tuesday, Assad expressed skepticism about US President George W. Bush's call for an international Middle East regional meeting, dismissing the offer as "just words." "I read this morning that the American president spoke of his wish to work for a peace conference. I hope... this is true, but to this moment these are just words as far as we are concerned," he said. Bush said Monday the conference would be held late this year at an undisclosed site and would include Israel, the Palestinians and some of their neighbors. Israeli diplomatic officials said Assad's speech seemed to be his response to an interview Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave last week to Al-Arabiya television. In that interview, Olmert invited Assad to Jerusalem for direct talks. In a related development, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations would be willing to mediate in any peace talks between Israel and Syria, applauding Olmert for opening the door to such negotiations. "It is encouraging that Israel has expressed the willingness to talk with the Syrian president and all other regional players," Ban told reporters Monday. "I would be happy to facilitate such peace initiatives." Assad was reelected on May 27 with 97.62 percent of the vote, in a referendum boycotted by the opposition and dismissed by critics as a sham. He was the only candidate in the "no" or "yes" ballot.•