Syrian President Has 'Credibility Gap,' Israel Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syrian President Bashar Assad accused the Israeli government on Thursday of being "too weak" to enter into peace negotiations, but Israel said Assad is mistaking democracy for weakness.

Assad has been sending mixed messages to Israel since the end of last summer's war between Israel and Hizballah -- alternately offering negotiations and threatening war. Israel has dismissed his peace overtures as a ploy to improve Damascus' standing with the West.

Last month, Syrian Information Minister Muhsen Bilal said that Syria wanted to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. He also said that if Israel rejects an Arab League peace initiative, then Syria would take the Golan Heights by force.

Israel captured the strategic plateau in 1967. Prior to that time Syrian gunners frequently fired on the Israeli population in the valley below. The Golan Heights also is a vital water catchment area for the Sea of Galilee, from which Israel draws about a third of its drinking water supply.

Israel and Syria engaged in negotiations on and off for years but talks have been frozen since the beginning of 2000.

Assad told Syrian parliamentarians on Thursday that the disputed Golan Heights is not up for negotiation.

"We are working toward a just and comprehensive peace," he was quoted as saying in news agency reports. "But Israel is incapable of conducting comprehensive and just negotiations because its government is too weak to take the necessary steps."

But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Syrian criticism on the peace issue should be taken for what it is worth.

"No one should mistake democracy for weakness," he said. "Democracy is strength."

Regev said Assad has a "credibility gap," and accused him of aligning himself "with the most violent and extremist enemies of peace."

The Israeli intelligence community has been divided about Assad's intentions. Some officials assess that Syria is preparing itself for an all-out war against Israel, possibly this summer, while others disagree.

The U.S. considers Syria to be a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Palestinian terrorist groups - Hamas and Islamic Jihad are headquartered in Damascus - and for its backing of the Lebanese-based Hizballah. It is also a strong ally of Iran.

Washington has also charged that Syria has allowed insurgents to cross its border into Iraq to attack American and allied troops. Senior Syrian officials are also suspected of being involved in the murder of pro-Western former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri two years ago and other anti-Syrian Lebanese officials.

Assad said on Thursday that Syria would not cooperate with the international commission investigating the murder

Syrian expert Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University said he believes that Assad wants relations with Israel, based on the Egyptian model. He wants Israel to give up land and he might be willing to exchange ambassadors but he does not want warm relations between the two countries.

Zisser does not believe the Syrian leader would give up his support for terrorist organizations.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem last week in Egypt on the sidelines of a conference focusing on the situation in Iraq - the first such high-level meeting in two years.

Initially, the Bush administration, which has pursued a policy of isolating Syria, rejected a recommendation by the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group that Syria should be enlisted to help bring calm in Iraq. But last week's meeting - criticized by some pro-Israel groups in the U.S. - seemed to signal a shift in that policy.

Assad said on Thursday that the policy of isolation has failed. Whoever wants to isolate Syria "is in fact isolating himself from the region's issues, because Syria has its role," he was quoted as saying.

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