UN envoy believes Syria interested in peace talks with Israel

The UN’s Mideast envoy said Wednesday that after recent contacts with Syrian officials, he believes Damascus is interested in restarting peace talks with Israel.Syria’s UN ambassador said his country was prepared to enter a peace process if Israel would acknowledge publicly its willingness to withdraw from all Syrian territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

UN Mideast envoy Michael Williams said he travelled to Syria last month and held talks with at least two senior government officials there — Vice President Farouk Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

“It did seem to me that there was an interest on the Syrian side in looking at the possibilities involved in negotiations” with Israel, Williams told reporters. “I think they are interested in opening negotiations.” Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a speech Tuesday that Damascus was ready for peace talks with Israel, but only in the presence of an honest broker and with conditions. He said Syria wants “certain guarantees” from Israel, namely a promise for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured in 1967.

Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said Assad’s position was not a shift.

“The Syrian will for engagement in the peace process has been repeatedly stated at the highest level of the Syrian authorities many times since the year 2000,” he told reporters.

Peace talks broke down in 2000 after Syria demanded that Israel withdraw from the Golan. Israel offered to go back to the international border, but Syria insisted on also controlling another small strip of territory — the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, which it captured during the 1948-49 war. Talks broke down on that point and over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.

Jaafari said the interesting point in Assad’s speech was that he shot down rumours of any secret negotiations between Syria and Israel.

“He stated two, three times yesterday in his speech that there couldn’t be, there wouldn’t, and there shouldn’t be any secret negotiations between Syria and Israel with regard to the peace process,” Jaafari said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week offered to hold direct peace talks, but Syria rebuffed the idea.

Olmert said Syria was insisting talks be mediated by the Americans, who are not interested.

The US has accused Syria of destructive meddling in Lebanon and Iraq and supporting groups such as Hizbollah and Palestinian extremists.

On Monday, President Bush proposed an international Mideast peace conference later this year including Israelis, Palestinians and some of their Arab neighbours.

US officials said it was unlikely that Syria would attend.

Olmert has signalled he would be ready to give up the Golan, but he says peace talks cannot take place as long as Syria maintains its close ties with Hamas, Hizbollah and other violent anti-Israel groups.

Assad has not publicly addressed Israel’s demand to stop supporting those groups and scale back Syrian ties with Iran, its main ally in the region.

An Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel and Syria have been in contact through third parties for a while, but the mediators have been unable to get the two sides to resume peace talks.

Assad said Tuesday that a third country recently offered to serve as a mediator with Israel. The country, which he did not identify, has mediated in the past, he said.

Israeli media speculated Assad was referring to Turkey.

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