Syria rejects PM’s preconditions for new peace talks

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara rejected on Thursday afternoon Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal to renew Israel-Syria peace negotiations due to his imposition of preconditions on Damascus. Sharon said Thursday he is willing to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that formal peace talks between the archrivals remain impossible as long as the Damascus government harbors Palestinian militant groups. In a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Hani Mulki, a-Shara said in previous meetings Syria „indicated the resumption of negotiations must come without any preconditions and I now see that the Israeli prime minister has set conditions. This is not acceptable.” Sharon said earlier in the day that Assad must crack down on Palestinian militants for talks to resume. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, have headquarters in Damascus. Sharon told a gathering of Israeli editors in Tel Aviv that Assad has not taken even „the smallest step” against militants. „Would I be willing to meet Assad? Under certain conditions, yes,” Sharon said. „I wouldn’t recommend that Israel open negotiations with the Syrians when all the terror groups are operating there.” Sharon seemed to suggest that Israel could be persuaded to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria. „I think the Israelis love the Golan Heights, there’s no doubt,” he said. „But we are not dealing with this subject according to each person’s personal desires.” Sharon, Shalom deny ignoring Assad’s offer to visit Jerusalem Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom have denied a published report that Israel ignored Assad’s readiness to come to Jerusalem and speak in the Knesset as a first step toward renewing peace talks. According to the report in Wednesday’s Maariv, the former director of the foreign ministry, Eitan Bentzur, discussed the proposal with Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, before the U.S.-led war in Iraq. President Assad reportedly did not require that Israel agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights as a precondition to talks. Sharon said he first heard of such a deal from the newspaper. „I think it didn’t happen because if it had, I would have known about it,” he said.

„There was no statement or proposal like this that was rejected,” said Shalom. „There were initial contacts, there was one meeting with relatives and aides of President Assad, which was supposed to bring about talks on a higher level if they had continued.” Shalom blamed media exposure for the failure of the initial talks and reiterated Israel’s stance that the country is interested in talks with Syria if Damascus stops sheltering terrorists and endangering the new Palestinian leadership. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who was visiting Jerusalem Wednesday, said he did not bring any message from Syria to Israel. He said he did not discuss talks with Syria during his meeting with Sharon. BPI-info