Israel Wary of Syrian Overtures

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is wary about an offer by Syrian President Bashar Assad to renew negotiations with the Jewish State over the future of the Golan Heights and establishing of diplomatic relations, Israeli officials said.

Assad made the offer to resume negotiations with Israel without preconditions in an extensive interview published in The New York Times on Monday. He also said that Damascus is always calling on the U.S. to "work hard for the resumption of these negotiations."

But both Israel and the U.S. expressed their skepticism over the Syrian offer.

"Every expression of interest in peace should be probed," said Dr. Dore Gold, senior advisor to Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"But one has to expect as a prerequisite that Syria will stop serving as a haven for attacks on US forces in Iraq and for terrorist groups attacking Israeli civilians," Gold said in a telephone interview.

Stalled for years, Israeli-Syrian talks resumed briefly for a few months from December 1999 through the beginning of 2000 over the issue of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syrian during the 1967 Six-Day War.

But the talks deadlocked again over Syria's demand that Israel return land, including the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel's largest freshwater resource.

Assad said there were no preconditions for talks with Israel but "negotiations should be resumed from the point at which they had stopped simply because we have achieved a great deal in these negotiations." He said the two sides had already agreed on 80 percent of the details.

One Israeli diplomatic source said that there was nothing new or different in Assad's words, although he struck a more conciliatory note.

But the diplomat argued that Assad's offer to resume talks where they ended was just another form of diplomatic double-speak, indicating just what his preconditions are.

The source said that he was not certain that Assad was really serious and that he would be willing to go forward at the expense of the Palestinians. He said he believed the offer had more to do with the American presence in Iraq, and Syria not wanting to be considered a rogue state where terrorism is concerned.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that while the U.S. will take a good look at what Assad said in the interview, Syria has in the past put off the idea of negotiations with Israel until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

"I remember two particular discussions where he [Powell] discussed with President Assad our willingness, our hope, to make progress on all tracks of the peace process," Boucher said on Monday.

"The reply was generally that they were looking to see progress on the Palestinian track before reengaging on the Syrian track," he said.

While the U.S. remains willing to help the parties to engage in talks, Boucher said, there are still some questions.

"We find it hard to understand how Syria can talk peace at a time when Syria continues to support groups that are violently opposed to the peace process, that are violently opposed to the Palestinian government and the building of a Palestinian state," he said.

Senior U.S. administration officials have charged that Syria has opened its border with Iraq to allow terrorists to cross over to attack U.S. troops. Washington has also demanded that Assad to close down the offices of a dozen Palestinian terrorist organizations headquartered in his capital as well as cut off support for Hizballah, which is based in Lebanon.

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