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Syria Flip-Flops on Golan, Israel Skeptical

Syria has retracted its demand for an Israeli surrender of the Golan Heights as a condition for peace talks, but Israeli leaders from the left and right are wary of relying on words.
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
First Publish: 12/17/2006, 7:13 AM / Last Update: 12/17/2006, 9:06 AM

The issue has re-surfaced since this month's U.S. Baker-Hamilton report recommended Israel relinquish the strategically important Golan Heights in return for several actions by Syria, including encouraging Hamas to recognize Israel and adhering to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 that calls for disarming Hizbullah terrorists.

Syria pounced on the report; American President George W. Bush has rejected it. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who touted the Baker-Hamilton document when it was released, prompted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, "What positions would Syria take if it entered a dialogue with the United States about Iraq and other Middle East issues?"

"A constructive dialogue has to start without preconditions," answered Moallem, buoyed by the Baker-Hamilton recommendation. He contradicted previous statements from President Bashar Assad that Israel must relinquish the Golan Heights as part of a peace accord and told Ignatius he is "expressing ideas" of President Assad.

The author of the report, former American Secretary of State James Baker, worked with Moallem on issues involving the 1991 Madrid conference, featuring Israel and former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. The conference was the first step toward the failedOslo Accords.

Ignatius quoted Moallem as saying that the US policy of isolating Syria has failed and that the country must be involved in any Middle East peace negotiations.

However, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that Syria first must show that it does not support terror. "Removing terrorist command centers from Damascus, as well as stopping Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal from operating in Syria, are Israel's preconditions for entering into talks" with Syria, he said.

National Union Knesset MemberUri Ariel went one step further and asserted that Israel's retention of the Golan Heights should be a pre-condition for talks with Damascus. "They must remove themselves from the 'axis of evil,' and they must also understand thoroughly that the Golan will remain in our hands, under any circumstances," he stated.

Aides to Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu said that a Channel 10 television report that the former Prime Minister supports immediate talks with Syria is inaccurate. His office said that negotiations cannot begin before Syria stops aiding Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists.