Israel Confirms Indirect Ties With Syria

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

JERUSALEM – Israel and Syria have been in contact through third parties for a while, but the mediators have been unable to get the two sides to resume peace talks, an Israeli official said Wednesday.

In a speech Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said a third country recently offered to serve as a mediator with Israel. The country, which he did not identify, has mediated in the past, “but there was nothing serious and clear,” he said. Israeli media speculated Assad was referring to Turkey.

“In recent weeks this side and this country stepped up its contacts on the same subject,” he said. Assad said he would be willing to send someone to the country, but would not hold direct talks with Israelis.

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In Damascus on Wednesday, Syrian lawmaker Mohammad Habash said negotiations could not take place until the Israelis commit to leave the Golan Heights, a condition also posed by Assad during his speech. Israel captured the strategic plateau in the 1967 Mideast war.

“When the Israelis say they are ready to give up the Golan, only then peace talks could be resumed,” Habash told The Associated Press, adding that Assad was “flexible” about accepting assurances through a third party.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Turkey, European countries and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have relayed messages to Syria but that nation has not responded seriously to the Israeli overtures. He accused Damascus of exploiting the talks to improve its ties with the West.

“Different parties have been used to send messages. This is not new,” Regev said. “The problem appears to be with the policy goals of the regime in Damascus.

“While it is possible that they talk about peace, that’s all it is _ talk. They are in fact playing the Israeli card cynically in attempts to solve their diplomatic problems with the countries of Europe and North America.”

Peace talks broke down in 2000 after Syria demanded that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights. Israel offered to go back to the international border, but Syria insisted on also controlling another small strip of territory _ the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, which it captured during the 1948-49 war. Talks broke down on that point and over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week offered to hold direct peace talks, but the offer was rebuffed by Syria. Assad also has not publicly addressed Israel’s demand that Damascus scale back its ties with Iran, its main ally in the region, and stop supporting Lebanese and Palestinian groups sworn to destroy Israel.

Discussion of Syria-Israel negotiations came just days after President Bush proposed a Mideast peace conference for the fall to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)