US, Israel say time not ripe for talks with Syria

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States and Israel said after high-level talks here Wednesday that the time might not be ripe for the Jewish state to resume peace talks with arch-rival Syria.

Washington insists that Syria is not playing a “constructive role” in the Middle East while Israel wants critical peace talks with the Palestinians to be given top priority, officials said.

“I don’t think you’re going to find many indications of Syria showing the rest of the world that they are interested in playing a constructive, positive role in trying to bring about a more peaceful, secure region,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. McCormack accused Syria of continuing to support terrorist groups in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. He also cited Damascus links to Iran, both of which Washington calls “state sponsors of terrorism.” He spoke after a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and army chief, ahead of a “strategic” bilateral dialogue between the two allies on Thursday. It also comes ahead of a meeting on June 19 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush in Washington.

About a month ago, Rice held an unprecedented meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem but emphasised later that Damascus needed to close its Iraq border to foreign fighters and to crack down on Palestinian extremists if it wanted to thaw frosty ties with Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also has for the moment rejected overtures by Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks, saying Damascus first had to stop supporting armed groups like Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Mofaz told reporters after talks with Rice that Israel wanted to give greater priority to building peace with the Palestinians than the Syrians.

“Our first priority should be Palestinian discussions,” he said repeatedly when asked whether peace efforts would be revived with Syria.

It was reported in the Israeli media that Mofaz believed that “the time has come to launch a secret channel with Syria” in order to defuse mounting tensions in the region.

Mofaz’s Washington trip was also intended to “verify what Syria’s objectives would be in eventual peace talks with Israel”,  a press report had said.

US-brokered peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 war and unilaterally annexed in 1981.

On the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Mofaz said he hoped leaders of the two sides would “continue to meet” following the postponement of a Thursday summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Plans for regular meetings between Abbas and Olmert have been scuppered by internal crises both in Israel and the Palestinian territories and by the resumption of violence between the army and fighters in Gaza.

Washington on Wednesday played down the postponement of the meeting — the first talks in nearly two months — saying they remain committed to the peace process.

“They have committed themselves to meet, they believe it is important for them to talk and actually get down to problem solving,” McCormack said.

Rice and Mofaz also discussed Iran’s defiant nuclear programme, with the Israeli minister suggesting that the international community should give Tehran an end-2007 deadline to end its sensitive atomic activities.

“Iran continues its military nuclear programme and I believe diplomatic efforts should bear result until the end of 2007,” he told reporters.

But McCormack said he was not aware of any timeline but added, “Clearly, Israel, as well as the rest of the world, is concerned about Iran’s nuclear activity.”

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