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Israel has ‘no problem’ with Syria at peace talks

Israel on Monday welcomed a U.S. announcement that Syria will be invited to an upcoming Mideast peace conference, saying it has “no problem” sitting down with its archenemy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel on Monday welcomed a U.S. announcement that Syria will be invited to an upcoming Mideast peace conference, saying it has “no problem” sitting down with its archenemy.

The Israeli announcement came as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country is not interested in violent conflict with Syria and expressed confidence that recent tensions between the enemy nations will subside.

Olmert has been trying to ease fears of a possible outbreak in fighting after a reported Israeli airstrike in Syria on Sept. 6. Israel has not publicly acknowledged the incursion.

Israel has repeatedly criticized Syria for its support of radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon. Syria also is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that key Arab nations, including Syria, would be invited to President Bush’s planned Mideast peace conference this fall. The U.S. hopes the conference will provide the foundation for peace talks meant to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Israel supported the American gesture to Syria. “We have no problem with whomever the United States decides to include at the international meeting,” she said.

Syria did not immediately respond to the planned American invitation.

Alleged Israeli airstrike raises tensions
Tensions between Israel and Syria have been heightened since the alleged Israeli airstrike earlier this month.

Speaking to a closed meeting of Israeli lawmakers, Olmert on Monday said Israel has been monitoring Syrian troop movements in recent weeks.

“We’re not interested in friction, and I think the Syrians aren’t either,” Olmert said, according to a meeting participant. “I think the tensions in the area will gradually subside.”

The participant spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

At the time of the alleged air raid, Syria accused Israel of invading its airspace and dropping unspecified munitions. Israel has imposed a news blackout on the matter.

But Mideast defense officials have told The Associated Press an Israeli airstrike targeted a Syrian “technology installation” in tandem with commando forces on the ground.

Foreign news reports have cited officials and experts as saying the attack targeted either arms meant for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon or some sort of nonconventional weapon, perhaps a joint Syrian-North Korean nuclear project. Syria has denied both, and North Korea has denied a nuclear link with Damascus.

“Israeli warplanes’ intrusion into the territorial airspace of Syria and bomb-dropping are an outright violation of Syria’s sovereignty and a grave crime that destroys regional peace and security,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper as saying on Monday.

The North also claimed that the United States defended the Israelis’ “brazen behavior” in allegedly launching the airstrike, Yonhap said.

Israel PM pushes for peace talks
Despite the tensions, Olmert last week called for the reopening of peace talks, without conditions, between the two adversaries.

Past negotiations broke down seven years ago over Syria’s demand for the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

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 Syria captured during the 1948-49 war that accompanied Israel’s creation. Talks also faltered over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.