By REBECCA ANNA STOIL, TOVAH LAZAROFF
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called on Monday for direct talks with Damascus, two days before his meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country has worked to jump-start negotiations on the Syrian track.
"I'm ready to meet with the Syrians for a talk any time, at any place, and to begin negotiations," Lieberman told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu conveyed a similar message to French President Nicolas Sarkozy when the two leaders met in Paris last week.
But on Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad was in Paris, and he told Sarkozy that he would only engage in indirect talks, such as were conducted under prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Kouchner is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, for a two-day visit. He is to meet with top Israeli leaders including Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to discuss regional issues, such as Iran, the stalled Palestinian talks and Syria. Kouchner is also expected to meet with Palestinians leaders.
Israel would like France to mediate any indirect talks with Syria, but has said that its preference is to meet the Syrians face to face.
Syria wants Ankara, which mediated the indirect talks under Olmert, to resume that role. Israel has said that Israel's strained relationship with Turkey would make it hard for it to play that role now.
France and Israel have looked to move forward with Syria, at a time when negotiations with the Palestinians have stalled.
Barak has said there have been encouraging signs from Damascus, despite Syria's collaboration with Iran and terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah that want to destroy Israel.
Lieberman warned the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Damascus stood to benefit from contact with Israel, which "provides them with an entrance ticket to the international community."
During any talks with Syria, Israel "will demand that Syria leaves the Axis of Evil," Lieberman said.
While Syria speaks of talks with Israel, it refuses to leave the "axis," which it believes is critical to the maintenance of its regime, he said.
He emphasized that to that end, Assad is working in collaboration with Iran and allows the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad sanctuary in Damascus.
Lieberman reiterated his message before television cameras, minutes after exiting the closed-door committee session.
"Assad is sending all kinds of signals, like the [Francop] weapons ship," Lieberman said.
"We gave a clear manner that we are ready to enter negotiations and to talk about peace, but without preconditions. The Syrians are not ready for democratization and for open relations between them and the rest of the world, because their main interest is to maintain the Assad dynasty's Alawite administration.
"Syria received an offer of gaining observer status at the European Union, but the Syrians rejected the invitation, not because of Israel but because of their own domestic considerations," he offered as an example.
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