Israel says awaits clear Syrian message on Iran

Israel has been passing messages to Syria for months through Turkey and has yet to receive assurances peace talks would lead Damascus to sever ties with Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, officials said on Wednesday.“Hints are utterly insufficient,” said a senior Israeli official involved in the internal discussions.

“We’re waiting for a real message” that Syria is prepared to make a “strategic realignment” in exchange for direct talks on returning the Golan Heights, captured 40 years ago, the official told Reuters.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has also set preconditions for any revived peace talks.

He told the Syrian parliament on Tuesday that Israel must first commit itself to a complete withdrawal from the Golan.

US President George W. Bush has shown little enthusiasm for an Israeli-Syrian peace track, casting doubt on the chances of a breakthrough in the near future.

“We are ready for direct talks with the Syrians and they can pick the time and the place of their choosing, and we will show up,” said Mark Regev, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman.

“There is scepticism on our side as to whether the Syrians are serious about peace or whether they are playing the peace card in order to try to improve their relations with other countries,” he added.

Talks collapsed

Negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 without resolving the fate of the Golan, a plateau occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six-Day War and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.

Two senior Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Jewish state has been using Turkey to pass messages to Assad since at least February, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara.

“They are passing messages but it hasn’t been a very intensive channel,” one of the officials said of Ankara.

Israel has likewise turned to UN special envoy Michael Williams, who recently briefed Olmert on his talks in Damascus.

Williams told Reuters earlier this month that Syrian officials gave him “the impression … that if there was progress in terms of establishing a peace track, then we would see some changes in Syrian behaviour on the three issues, Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas”.

A senior Israeli official played down Williams’ comments, saying: “There have been hints that they may reevaluate, but nothing more”.

The official said “as far as Israel is concerned, there has been no public or private commitment for a strategic realignment” by Syria away from Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas.

The official said Israel wants a direct message.

Another senior Israeli government official said of the Syrians: “Nobody is asking them to be Zionists. But are they in the camp of Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas? Or are they in the camp of Jordan and Egypt? They have to decide.”

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