Israeli president urges Syria talks

July 21, 2007 - 0:0

BEIT-UL-MOQADDAS (AP) -- President Shimon Peres called on Syria to open direct peace talks with Israel, urging Damascus to drop its demand that negotiations take place through mediators.

The comments by Peres was the latest overture by leaders of the two nations toward restarting long-stalled peace efforts. Each country, however, has attached conditions to its offer and accused the other of being insincere, raising doubts about whether negotiations can resume after a seven-year lull. Peres said direct talks would send an important message that Syria is serious about pursuing peace. In a speech this week, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he is ready to resume talks, but only through a third party. ""If Syria wants true peace, there is no substitute for direct negotiations between it and Israel which will open with a meeting between the leaders and will symbolize mutual recognition, at the opening stage,"" Peres said at a meeting with China's Mideast envoy. Peres, a veteran political leader and former prime minister, assumed his largely ceremonial office this week. He immediately said he would use the presidency to continue his longtime efforts for Mideast peace, drawing criticism from Israeli hard-liners that he was overstepping the boundaries of his job. Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Olmert had no problem with Peres' comments. ""What he says specifically is the prime minister's stance,"" she said. Olmert last week said he was ready for direct talks. Assad responded in a speech recently by saying Syria would resume negotiations in the presence of an honest broker if Israel first promised to return the Golan Heights, captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 Mideast war. 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. Olmert has signaled he is ready to give up the Golan, but has not laid out a formal position. ""He's very aware of the expectations,"" said Eisin. Assad, who has not publicly addressed the Israeli concerns, has close relations with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and hosts the headquarters of the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus. Recently, the only Muslim minister in Olmert's Cabinet, Raleb Majadele, offered to go to Syria ""as a messenger of goodwill and good intentions."" Olmert's office had no comment on the offer. A state-run Syrian newspaper raised doubts Thursday about Israel's desire to make peace with Syria, saying recent calls by the Jewish state for renewed talks were simply public relations. ""What has been raised about a desire for peace from the Tel Aviv leaders,"" the Tishrin paper wrote, ""is no more than eloquent phrases that are good for media consumption but not for a starting basis for the establishment of a just and comprehensive peace,"" the Tishrin paper wrote. Shlomo Brom, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said both Olmert and Assad appear to be motivated more by political considerations than a genuine desire for peace. With Olmert's approval dismal ratings following last year's war in Lebanon, a breakthrough with Syria would give the embattled Israeli leader a boost with the public. Without U.S. participation, Syria is unlikely to speak to Israel, Brom said. ""The purpose of the whole exercise is to become closer to the U.S.A, but the U.S.A has refused to play the game.