EU envoy, Syrian FM discuss ways to resume talks with Israel

11/01/2004 By Gideon Alon and Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondents, and Haaretz Service A European Union envoy on Sunday discussed with Syrian officials ways to resume Syrian-Israeli peace talks, saying Europe was read to help „in any way possible.” Following an hour-long meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, EU special representative for the Middle East peace process Marc Otte said the minister had reiterated Syria’s readiness to resume talks with Israel from the point they had stopped in January 2000. „We are of course ready to help in any way possible for these talks to resume. … But you need two to dance tango. I mean the other side has to accept too. We don’t want to negotiate in the place of the parties,” Otte said. „I am going to play the role of presenting our good offices to the two parties. The only way to reach peace is to negotiate,” he said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the cabinet on Sunday that recent contacts with Syria were broken off due to leaks to the media. Shalom refused to give any more details on the contacts Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the cabinet that Israel demands that Syria disarm all terror groups operating out of its territories before Israel will enter into talks with it. Sharon said that this condition is similar to Israel’s demand on the Palestinians to do the same. Despite Israel’s „burning desire for peace,” Sharon said, Syria must first stop supporting terror – a condition that the Sharon government will insist on. The prime minister said that Israel does not have to „run to embrace the Syrians” before clarifying the motives for their proposals. Shinui ministers Yosef Lapid and Yosef Paritzky called on Sharon to publicly declare that he is ready to negotiate with Syria, so as not to lose the public relations battle in the world arena. Lapid said that Israel is seen by the world as a „peace refusenik” for not responding to President Bashar Assad’s overtures. Education Minister Limor Livnat, however, called on Israel not to fall for the „Syrian trap.” Sharon also said that „I have expressed my full support for peace talks. Israel is certainly interested in peace with Syria, but we must not forget what the military intelligence chief told the cabinet last week that Syria is still aiding terror attacks against Israel.” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the cabinet that Israel does not have to be in too much of a rush to respond to Assad’s offer of talks. Syrian minister, Busaina Shaaban, told the BBC’s Arabic-language service that Damascus was now waiting for Israel to make an overture following Assad’s offer. She said that Syria had said on more than one occasion that it is prepared to renew talks with Israel, but has so far only met with hostile responses from Israel. Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat meanwhile told Army Radio on Sunday morning that the Palestinians would have no problem with Israel negotiating with Syria. Sharon’s comments to the cabinet echo those made by Israeli officials on Saturday that Israel is conditioning renewed talks with Syria on its halting all support for Palestinian terror groups. Defense establishment officials believe halting Syrian aid to Palestinian terror groups is the top priority – in fact an even higher priority than ending Syria’s backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to reports submitted to the political leadership last week by intelligence officials, the Syrian authorities currently forbid members of militant Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad from visible activities in Damascus, such as holding news conferences. However, their activities in the field continue as usual. Intelligence also believes Syrian-supported Hezbollah activity among Palestinians has stepped up. „We continue to track what [President Bashar] Assad is saying and also, more importantly, what he does,” an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said over the weekend. „As things stand now, since Assad is doing the opposite of what he is saying, it does not appear the time [for peace talks] has come. Should his behavior change, there will be readiness to talk on our part.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the White House on Friday that Washington wishes to discuss a number of issues with Syria, „including support for terrorism in Damascus, particularly support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and their relationship with Lebanon in that regard.” Health Minister Dan Naveh told Israel Radio on Sunday that Assad is in a weak position and this is thus a good opportunity for Israel to secure a better deal with Syria. The minister added that secret channels should be used to discover whether there really is anything to talk about with Damascus. Also speaking to Israel Radio, Meretz MK Yossi Sarid echoed these sentiments, saying that this is a good time to negotiate with Damascus and explore whether Assad is serious because Syria is in such a weak position at the moment. Former Israeli ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Tel Aviv University President Prof. Itamar Rabinovitch told the station that nothing was ever finalized in talks with Syria and talks can thus basically start again from scratch. Damascus is urging the United States to help it renew peace talks with Israel from the point at which they were halted in January 1996, the Syrian state-run newspaper Al-Thawra said Saturday. But senior American officials told Israel this week that U.S. does not intend to push for or sponsor any resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks, although Washington will not object should Israel choose to take up Assad’s offer to resume negotiations. The editorial in Al-Thawra newspaper said: „Syria hopes the U.S. will relate to the peace process seriously, after it [Syria] reiterated recently that it wants to continue talks [with Israel] at the point where they were broken off.” The editorial expressed hope that the U.S. would be a neutral, honest broker in talks between Syria and Israel. „Peace is of vital interest to the region and it would be wrong to waste more time on all sorts of excuses,” the editorial said. It insisted that talks resume from where the last round broke off in 2000, and rejected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s preference to start talks with Syria from scratch. The paper denounced Sharon’s position as „an attempt to dodge this opportunity to renew the peace process.” The same editorial referred to Assad’s recent visit to Turkey as a step beneficial to the entire region. Assad’s visit will „help attain security, stability and peace in the region.”