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Syria: No hope for peace with Sharon's Israel

Syria's Prime Minister said Wednesday that he sees no hope for peace with Israel under the rule of Ariel Sharon. Nonetheless, Israel's President Moshe Katsav repeated his plea to Damascus to pursue new talks.
/ Source: news services

Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari said Wednesday he saw no hope for peace with Israel under the right-wing government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Earlier this week, Otari dismissed an invitation by Israeli President Moshe Katsav to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to visit Jerusalem as a “propaganda invitation” and a “media maneuver.” Nonetheless, Katsav went on Arab television on Wednesday to repeat his invitation, and press Syria to launch new peace talks.

“There is no hope under this Zionist administration for achieving just and comprehensive peace,” Otari told reporters in Damascus after a meeting with Lebanese officials to promote economic cooperation.

In a speech earlier Wednesday, Otari reiterated Damascus’s position that Syria wants peace with the Jewish state to be based on U.N. resolutions that guarantee Israeli withdrawal from all lands occupied since the 1967 Middle East war and the outcome of previous peace talks.

Israel has said it will not accept any conditions for revival of the U.S.-sponsored talks that collapsed in 2000 over the future of the strategic Golan Heights, seized by the Jewish State in 1967.

Katsav on Al-Jazeera
In an interview with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV channel, Moshe Katsav urged Assad to end support for Palestinian and Lebanese militants to show he was sincere in being a recent comment that he is interested in resuming peace talks.

“The test now is a test for the Syrian president,” Katsav said from Jerusalem. “He is required to prove his serious intentions and that he wants peace.”

Katsav spoke in Hebrew with an Arabic translation voice-over in the interview with Al-Jazeera, which is one of the few Arab stations that interviews Israeli officials.

The Israeli president repeated his invitation to Assad to visit, saying Israel would “welcome him.” Katsav first made the offer on Monday.

In 2000, Syrian-Israeli talks collapsed in a dispute over the amount of Golan Heights land to be returned to Damascus and security guarantees to be given Israel.

In a New York Times interview last month, Assad said he was interested in restarting peace negotiations, but Syrian officials have said the talks should begin where they broke off in 2000. Israel has rejected any preconditions for reopening the talks.

A U.S. official in Jerusalem said that while Assad’s words were important, concrete steps are needed — shutting down offices of Palestinian militant groups, moving the Hezbollah militia away from southern Lebanon and preventing wanted Iraqis from fleeing to its territory.

“What they should be doing is shutting down the headquarters of terrorist groups in Damascus — really shutting them down,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And they should be shutting down training bases in Syria.”

The official denied Israeli media reports that the United States encouraged Israel’s initially cool response to Assad’s overtures. “We do not see a reason why doors should be shut,” the official said.

Syria and Israel — foes who remain technically at war — have fought three major conflicts: in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Israel seized Syria’s strategic Golan Heights in 1967, but since 1973 their shared border has mostly been calm.

In the same interview, Katsav praised Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to abandon the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, saying he “deserves appreciation.”

Asked about reports of secret talks between Israel and Libya, Katsav said: “What happens in secret should remain a secret.” He would not elaborate.