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FM Livni: Syria Wants to Talk, But Not Make Peace

Syria wants to start bilateral negotiations, says Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni, but has no interest in actually reaching a peaceful accord with Israel.
By Nissan Ratzlav-Katz
First Publish: 12/27/2006, 2:05 PM / Last Update: 12/27/2006, 10:04 AM

Addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Minister Livni said that if Israel were to sit down at the negotiating table with Syria, other more moderate states would harden their position toward Israel. At the same time, when pressed by Knesset Members regarding her personal position on the possibility of negotiations with Damascus, Livni said, "I am not prepared to state what my opinion is, because then we would lose all the Arab states in 20 seconds."

The head of the Foreign Ministry Center for Policy Research, Nimrod Barkan, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that Syria is "ready to negotiate with Israel." In light of this, he noted, "extremist elements in Arab states are concerned that Syria will join the Western bloc."

The view that Syria is interested in negotiations was also voiced yesterday before the Knesset committee by the head of IDF Intelligence, Brigadier-General Yosef Beidatz.

Last week, Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told the committee that there was "no indication" that Syria wanted peace. In fact, Dagan said, the Syrians are greatly increasing military preparedness for the Israeli front, although he did not believe that they would strike first. He did note a "change of approach," with Damascus unafraid of confrontation with Israel ever since the recent war in Lebanon against the Hizbullah.

United Front Against Syria
In remarks during a press conference last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that recent talk of negotiations "without preconditions" by Syrian officials are "false pretenses" that Israel does not accept. "Syria continues to support terror in Iraq, is collaborating with the Iranian president and is sparing no effort to topple the government of [Fouad] Siniora [in Lebanon]," Olmert said, also noting Assad's ongoing support for the Hizbullah and Hamas terrorist organizations. He further claimed that Syria has prevented progress in negotiations to obtain the release of kidnapped IDF corporal Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas.

Similarly, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On has proposed developing the area of the Golan Heights near the Syrian border, calling the region "strategic" and "part of the Land of Israel."

The US White House issued a statement last week denouncing the Syrian government's human rights record. The statement said, in part, "Syrians deserve a government whose legitimacy is grounded in the consent of the people, not brute force." In that vein, the Bush Administration has rejected official contacts with Syrian leadership.

US Legislators in Support of Assad
Nonetheless, some US Congressmen have formed a procession of meetings with the Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, in recent days.

On Tuesday afternoon, Republican Senator Arlen Spector met in Damascus with Assad, who repeated his offer to negotiate with Israel on the basis of "land for peace." Senator Spector said he could tell, based on his personal meeting with the Syrian leader, that Assad's intentions were sincere. Spector further said he believed Assad's intention to end weapons supplies for the Hizbullah and to assist in the international investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Last week, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida met in Damascus with Assad, saying afterwards that he also believed that there was a "crack in the door" to continue discussions with Syria. Other US Senators planning to be hosted by the Assad regime include Democrats Chris Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts.