Sun, Jul 15, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Analysis: Olmert open to talks with Syria, obdurate on Golan

AFP , JERUSALEM

Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinian and foreign protesters demonstrating against the building of a separation barrier in the West Bank village of Umm Salamunah, south of Bethlehem, on Friday. The barrier is supposed to follow the Green Line that marks Israel's borders before the 1967 Six Day War, when the Jewish state captured the Golan Heights, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

PHOTO: AFP

While inviting new negotiations with Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave no sign that he was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights -- a prerequisite for such talks to succeed.

Through intermediaries he has assured Syria that Israel has no aggressive intentions toward its neighbor, but as recently as the beginning of this month the Jewish state still staged extensive military exercises on the Golan.

The plateau was seized by Israeli troops during the 1967 Six Day War and was later annexed unilaterally in 1981.

"This policy of hot and cold has a double aim -- to reduce the chance of war, which is perfectly justified, but also to give the impression of a relaunch of the peace process with Syria, which is all just for show," Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser said.

Zisser, a Syria and Lebanon specialist at Tel Aviv University, said that "neither Israel nor Syria is in a position to take essential steps towards making peace."

Zisser said that Olmert must announce that Israel is ready to cede the Golan, which is "out of the question because his government is so weak and because of the strength of the settlers lobby."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, should "make a spectacular gesture towards future normalization, such as coming to Jerusalem," which the specialist also ruled out.

Nevertheless, the Israeli daily Maariv on Friday said substantial progress had been made recently toward a resumption of direct negotiations, which were suspended in 2000, through contacts by intermediaries.

The newspaper said the UN envoy on the peace process, Michael Williams, had told Israel that Damascus was disposed to distancing itself from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas and Iran if peace talks were to resume.

But Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, was circumspect on that score.

"This may be the impression Mr Williams gained from his contacts," she said.

The Israeli Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported on June 8 that Olmert had secretly sent messages to Assad offering a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria abandoning its quarter-century alliance with Israeli arch-foe Iran and expelling Lebanese and Palestinian militants.

Olmert on Wednesday reportedly paid a secret visit to Jordan, where Maariv said he discussed the chances of resuming Israel-Syria talks with King Abdullah II.

At the same time, the Israeli premier has also criticized Assad for wanting to negotiate only with the US.

"Assad claims that he wants talks, but in reality what he means by that is negotiations with the United States ... and not with Israel," Olmert told ambassadors of the EU on Thursday.

"Syria doesn't want a war and Israel doesn't want one either, but that still doesn't mean a return to the negotiating table," he said.

Saying that US President George W. Bush had no wish to act as an intermediary between himself and Assad, Olmert in an interview with the satellite channel Al-Arabiya on July 9 invited the Syrian president to negotiate directly with him "wherever he wants."

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