More Speculation About Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syrian President Hafez Assad flew to Cairo on Monday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, raising speculation that there is movement in talks between Israel and Syria.

Assad, who is suffering from a variety of ailments, rarely leaves Syria. His last venture was two months ago when he met with President Clinton in Geneva in an attempt to restart Israeli-Syrian talks.

Prior to the Assad-Mubarak meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak telephoned Mubarak. A statement from Barak's office said the two had discussed "the situation in the region and all the tracks of the peace process."

According to the statement, Barak also briefed Mubarak on his Sunday evening talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Neither Assad nor Mubarak spoke to the press regarding their meeting, but Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said Syria was willing to make a deal with Israel.

Talks broke down over Assad's demand that Israel give up a portion of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee - a major fresh water source for Israel - in addition to the entire Golan Heights.

While Barak has agreed to remit the entire Golan, he has said that he will not give in on the issue of the shoreline.

The Lebanese quagmire

Israel had hoped U.S.-directed peace talks would have enabled it to conclude agreements with both Damascus and the Syrian-backed government in Beirut, Lebanon. But the seeming failure of those talks prompted Israel to declare a unilateral withdrawal from the zone in south Lebanon it has maintained for 15 years as a buffer against cross-border terror attacks.

The leader of Israel's allied militia there, South Lebanese Army commander General Antoine Lahad, asked Monday for a general amnesty for all members of the SLA, excluding himself.

Lahad, who served as a respected commander in the Lebanese Army before taking charge of the militia in south Lebanon in 1975, has been sentenced to death in his absence by a Beirut court.

In a letter to Lebanese President Emil Lahoud, Lahad said there were only three options open to SLA members - emigrate or become refugees, submit to their status as "collaborators" and face charges before Lebanese courts or "carry arms to defend themselves."

The most likely option, Lahad said in the letter, was that the majority of his soldiers would fight. If the Lebanese Army were to join militias such as Hizballah in the fight against the SLA, he said, "national unity would be most seriously disrupted."

SLA spokesman, Raymond Abu Mrad, told, there had been no response from the Lebanese government to the request.

The future of SLA fighters and their families is one of the uncertainties in the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, scheduled to take place by July 7.

Beirut views SLA militiamen - trained, equipped and paid by Israel - as traitors for allying themselves with Israel, first in the fight against Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and then against the Iranian-backed Hizballah and other Islamist organizations.

Salam Eid, News Director of the south Lebanon-based Christian Middle East Television, told he did not believe that Lahad's letter was "sincere," but rather was meant to send a political message.

"He's telling them [the coming situation in Lebanon] is not my responsibility, it's yours," Eid said. "If anything happens, you are responsible, not me."

Eid said he doubted Lahoud would even respond to Lahad's appeal.

United Nations envoy, Terje Larson, who visited Beirut to discuss Israel's planned withdrawal, said the SLA must be disarmed before the Israeli withdrawal.

On Sunday, thousands of residents of south Lebanon marched on UN Headquarters in Nakoura, southern Lebanon, calling for UN protection when Israel withdraws.

They carried Lebanese flags and signs demanding that Syria also withdraw its 35,000 troops deployed in Lebanon.

On the Israeli Side

Across the border, about 200 residents of the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona also demonstrated on Sunday, calling on the government to follow through on its promises for a tough reaction to Hizballah attacks on Israel's northern border communities.

Kiryat Shemona, frequently targeted by Hizballah attacks, was hit last Thursday evening and Friday morning by two Katyusha rocket barrages, which left one soldier dead and more than 30 residents slightly injured or in shock.

Between the attacks, Israel Air Force fighters bombed two Lebanese power stations and the Beirut-Damascus highway in retaliation. But Israel decided against a second attack on Lebanese infrastructure to avoid an escalation of the situation.

At a weekly cabinet meeting, Barak pledged that Israel would "continue to act with determination and responsibility in order to defend the residents of the north and the general interests of the state."

Barak said the attacks would not deter Israel from its planned withdrawal in July.

He said he would present a plan to commit one billion shekels ($250 million) toward enhancing the security of "confrontation-line" communities.