France Intervenes In An Effort To Restart Israeli-Syrian Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak arrived Monday in Paris, where he is scheduled to meet French President Jacques Chirac, a day after Chirac met Syrian President Hafez Assad's son and groomed successor, Bashar.

While in Paris, Barak will also attend a Socialist International meeting, hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and possibly meet Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

He has expressed confidence that "in the next few weeks or months talks with Syria will begin."

"[Hafez] Assad is an impressive, strong and responsible leader," Barak told Israeli Army radio Sunday. "He is our adversary. He is not a Zionist. He is concerned with Syrian interests, but he is the man who will lead to a peace agreement with Syria."

After Bashar Assad's meeting with Chirac, the younger Assad said he had brought no message from his father, but that "if there are good intentions," peace talks between Israel and Syria could resume.

France is keen to play a mediating role between Israel and Syria, despite unfruitful efforts in the past.

Despite this, Bashar Assad said Europe could play a "very important role" alongside the U.S. in talks between the two Middle East nations.

Assad, 36, is being groomed by his ailing father to assume leadership of Syria. His meeting with Chirac was his first with a Western leader.

In an interview with the French newspaper, La Figuero, he said Syria was working under the assumption that a peace agreement would be reached with Israel. He reiterated his father's stance that negotiations resume where they broke off in 1996.

That point, as far as Damascus is concerned, was with an alleged promise by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - via a U.S. diplomat - for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel has denied such a promise was made.

A State Department official disappointed Syria last week when he said Israel had never promised to give back the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty.

"Nothing is agreed till everything is agreed, and there were no agreements in this area," the official was quoted as saying in Washington.

However, Syria might only have to agree to talks with Israel in order to obtain most its demands.

Former Chief of Military Intelligence Uri Saguy said "in negotiations with Jordan, the Jordanians got every grain of sand of Jordanian territory, and in the agreement with Egypt Israel withdrew from all the land. Syria knows that, and knows very well what it can get from Israel."

Saguy, who is favored as the candidate most likely to head negotiations with Syria, said Damascus knows that getting what it wants requires reciprocal action.

He predicted the biggest challenge in talks would relate to water rights, and not security. His remarks, made at a lecture in Northern Israel, were published in the Nazareth daily A Sinara.

"Syria won't get less than what Jordan and Egypt got, and at the same time Syria knows that Israel won't make do with less than what Jordan and Egypt provided," Saguy said.

Jordan and Egypt both have full diplomatic relations with Israel, relative quiet along their borders and trade agreements.

The Golan Heights, a plateau overlooking the Galilee valley, provides Israel with a strategic advantage in protecting its territory and controls 30 per cent of Israel's water resources.

Israel seized control over the Heights during the 1967 Six Day War.