Israeli-Syrian Talks Depend on Syrian Fight Against Terror, Israel Says

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

Jerusalem ( - Whether or not Israel resumes negotiations with the Syrians will not depend on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but rather on the action Damascus takes against terrorism, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Tuesday.

In the past, Israel has preferred to manage negotiations with either the Palestinians or the Syrians. The last time Israel and Syria engaged in negotiations was after Israeli-Palestinian talks became deadlocked in 1999. But when talks with Syria returned to the deep freeze in early 2000, Israeli-Palestinian talks revived.

Earlier this month during an interview with the New York Times, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered to resume negotiations with Israel without preconditions.

A Sharon spokesman, Dr. Ra'anan Gissin, said that any revived interest in Syrian talks on Israel's part would have nothing to do with the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian process but instead would be based on Syria's fight against terrorism.

"[Resuming negotiations] has nothing to do with unilateral moves but with Syrian performance," said Gissin in a telephone interview.

Sharon said 12 days ago that Israel would make unilateral security moves within a few months if the Palestinian Authority does not fulfill its part of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

The Syrians would show their real intention if they would stop supporting terrorist groups, said Gissin. That would be a "step forward toward the resumption of negotiations."

It is inconceivable that Israel would hold peace talks with Syria over the return of the Golan Heights while Syria is "actively engaged in active war against Israel from Lebanon," Gissin said in reference to ongoing cross-border attacks by the Syrian-backed Hizballah.

Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak nearly clinched a deal to return the strategic plateau to the Syrians in talks with the late Syrian President Hafez Assad. But the negotiations stalled over a Syrian demand to include land on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater source.

Nevertheless, Gissin said Israel is taking the Syrian overtures "very seriously ... with all due reservations and in coordination with the U.S."

Congress recently passed the Syrian Accountability Act requiring the president to prohibit the export of military or dual-use items to Syria as well as impose other sanctions if Syria does not stop supporting terrorism and quit its occupation of Lebanon.

Since then, analysts say, Syria has been making conciliatory overtures, including toward Israel, to try to get on the good side of Washington.

But Gissin said it wouldn't be wise to let Syria "get off the hook" without making any moves to fight terrorism.

Sharon was quoted earlier this week by the Jerusalem Post as having told his cabinet that Israeli demands of Syria included putting a stop to harboring and training Palestinian terrorists, removing Hizballah from the Lebanese border and getting rid of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel by the Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

An unnamed member of the Israeli parliament from Sharon's own Likud party was reportedly invited to Damascus for talks on the diplomatic process.

"One of the Likud members of Knesset has been invited to Syria in order to advance a process" of Israeli-Syrian diplomacy, Israel Radio reported on Tuesday. But the report said the Knesset member preferred not to be named.

Two Likud Knesset members are from the Druze sect. Syrian overtures to Israeli politicians have in the past been to Knesset members from the Arab parties.

Sharon's office said that if a Likud member were to travel to Syria for talks, it would not be at the behest of the prime minister.

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