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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barak: talks with Syria central Israeli goal

If talks with Syria are a central goal, Israel is in trouble, as there is clearly no progress in that area. Intelligence people insist that it would be impossible to remove Syria from Iranian influence and Syria's president Assad blames Israel for everything from global warming to his acne.
 Last update - 00:33 30/03/2008       
Barak: Renewed talks with Syria are a central policy goal
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent, and News Agencies
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Friday that renewed peace negotiations with Syria are a primary objective of Israel's foreign policy.
"Israel sees launching negotiations with Syria and removing it from the circle of extremism as a central objective of its policy," the defense minister told diplomats in Tel Aviv.
Barak said Israel is keeping a watchful on developments along its northern border, including "the strengthening of Hezbollah with Syrian backing as well as the whispers from the other side of the Syrian border.
"Israel is the strongest country in the region, which allows it to both stand guard and try to reach agreements," he added.
Barak's comments came as Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Friday that Israel has been making efforts to bring Syria back to the negotiating table.
Ben-Eliezer spoke just days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted that Israel might be holding - or planning to hold secret talks with Syria.
"All efforts are being made to bring Syria to the negotiating table in order to sign a peace treaty," Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio.
"We know exactly what the price would be," he added - namely, Israel's return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.
He would not disclose what results there have been, if any, from Israel's efforts to resume dialogue with the Syrians.
Israel-Syria peace talks - a centerpiece of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's political agenda - broke down in 2000 with Syria rejecting Israel's offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and insisting that Israel pull back to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that Barak, now defense minister, was a partner to the current efforts to renew talks with Damascus.
On Wednesday, Olmert told foreign journalists that Israel favors face-to-face talks with Syria that could result in a peace treaty, adding: "That doesn't mean that when we sit together you have to see us," he said, an apparent reference to the possibility of secret contacts.
A week earlier, Olmert told a joint meeting of the Israeli and German Cabinets that he was ready to restart negotiations with Syria if Damascus would end its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups. All are backed by Iran and opposed to Israel's existence.
Since Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, both Israel and Syria have declared their readiness to renew negotiations and exchanged messages through third party emissaries, but there has been no sign of movement.
The Israeli efforts to engage Syria in negotiations come at a time when
Israeli attempts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians are making no visible progress.
Arab FMs re-endorse 2002 peace initiative
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said on Thursday that Israel must show a commitment to the peace process if Damascus were to re-evaluate its support of a 2002 Saudi peace initiative.
Moallem's comments came just hours before Arab foreign ministers meeting in Damascus ahead of an Arab League summit this weekend agreed to re-endorse the initiative, which promises recognition of Israel should it withdraw in full from territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
During talks with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney earlier this week, President Shimon Peres dismissed recent Syrian calls for peace talks, saying Israel would not consider ceding the Golan Heights to Syria only to have Damascus and Tehran increase their dominance in Lebanon.
The president added that while Israel is always ready to negotiate toward peace with Syria, the duplicitous game that Assad is playing in Syria cannot be ignored.
He noted that a tremendous amount of Iranian-funded weapons are transferred to Hezbollah every day through Syria.
Olmert had told visting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week that Israel was "ready to begin a diplomatic process with Syria only if they distance themselves from the axis of evil and stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah."
He made in the comments after Lavrov inquired whether Israel would be willing to hold talks with Damascus if Moscow were to mediate.
Lavrov had announced during his visit that a Moscow summit would aim to relaunch peace talks between Israel and Syria, and that the issue of the Golan Heights would definitely be on the summit's agenda.

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