09/01/2004 By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service The United Nations’ Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, has urged Israel to respond to overtures by Syrian President Bashar Assad on the renewal of peace talks, Army Radio reported Friday. Speaking in an interview to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, Larsen said that based his own conversations with Assad, he believes that the Syrian leader is honest in his intentions, and that Israel must take advantage of this. He reiterated the UN stance that Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights is not a legitimate one. The United States does not intend to push for or sponsor any resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks, but will not object should Israel choose to take up Assad’s offer to resume negotiations, senior American officials told Jerusalem this week. The officials expressed skepticism about Assad’s intentions, arguing that had he been serious, he would have used diplomatic back channels rather than calling for new talks in a newspaper interview. They also said that even if Assad would like to sign a peace deal, they are unconvinced he is strong enough to do so. Government sources in Jerusalem said that the White House and the State Department appeared to agree on this matter. Nevertheless, Israel has received contradictory advice from lower-level administration officials: Some have recommended that it accept Assad’s offer of renewed talks, mainly due to tactical considerations, while others have argued that American pressure on Syria is now bearing fruit, and it would be a mistake for Israel to allow Syria to exploit new peace talks to divert this pressure.
The latter say that Israel should wait until Assad complies with American demands that he end his support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met Thursday with Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer before Nelson flew to Damascus to meet Assad, told his guests: „Israel wants peace with all the Arab states, including Syria. There can be no preconditions for negotiations, nor can [talks] begin from the point at which they broke off [in 2000]. Obviously each party has demands of the other party, but the situation in which [the Syrians] export terror to Israel must end. „We must be realistic and, above all, cautious,” Sharon continued. „We want to investigate how serious the Syrians are, and we are not interested in being a ‘springboard to the White House’ [for the Syrians]. Instead of running or jumping, we must thoroughly examine their intentions.” Washington, meanwhile, is also waiting for the results of the first meeting between Assad and the new American ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met Thursday with Israeli Ambassador Pini Avivi to brief him on Assad’s visit to Ankara this week, offered a very different assessment. Erdogan said he had got the impression that Assad was serious about wanting peace talks with Israel, and that the Syrian president „intends to take all necessary steps to attain arrangements of peace in the Middle East,” Avivi reported. Erdogan also proposed that Turkey help promote Israeli-Syrian talks. Israel had earlier asked the Turks to convey a message to Assad – that if he is serious about wanting peace talks, „we expect him to close the terrorist offices in Damascus, halt aid to Hezbollah and take humanitarian steps such as returning the remains of [executed Israeli spy] Eli Cohen and helping to return Israel’s captive, missing and kidnapped [soldiers and civilians].” But Sharon is coming under increasing pressure from the political establishment to agree to talks with Syria. Haaretz reported Thursday that the Israel Defense Forces’ top brass favors opening talks; Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has long been urging the government to accept Assad’s offer; Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Wednesday in favor of renewing the talks; and President Moshe Katsav has also thrown his weight behind the proposed talks. On Thursday, Netanyahu clarified that he favors renewing talks because he believes that Assad’s weakness makes it possible to sign a deal that will leave most of the Golan Heights in Israel’s hands. Justice Minister and Shinui Party chairman Yosef Lapid said that he welcomes the Syrian initiative, but that Israel must „handle it with due caution in light of past experience.” Minister at the treasury Meir Sheetrit, in contrast, said that the government must respond affirmatively to the Syrian proposal and „take the courageous steps that most of the public wants.”