Israel’s Barak: Must look beyond Mideast risks

JERUSALEM | Israel’s defense minister said Monday that his country would be ready to talk peace with Syria if Damascus were serious about doing so — a sharp departure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s go-slow approach to peacemaking while the Middle East is in turmoil.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel must look beyond the risks arising from the changes sweeping the Arab world, where longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt have been toppled and the 42-year dictatorship of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi is under assault from opposition forces.

Mr. Barak acknowledged that the revolts might have negative implications for Israel because it is not clear what form of government Egyptians will choose and whether ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s successor will be as committed to the three-decade-old peace treaty with the Jewish state as he was.

Egypt’s current military rulers, who took over from Mr. Mubarak on Feb. 11, have promised to abide by the peace treaty.

Still, Mr. Barak said, Israel must see the changes as an opportunity to move peacemaking forward — including possible talks with Syria.

“The Syrians are signaling, in more than one way, that they are willing to consider an accord,” he said. “I think that we have to explore every opportunity. … If it turns out that the Syrian president really means it and is seriously exploring the possibility, with the understanding that peace is a mutual thing, then he will find us ready to talk.”

Mr. Barak did not say what signals Syria might be sending, and Syrian President Bashar Assad has not spoken about the issue in public in recent days. But Israeli newspapers have reported that Mr. Assad has expressed interest in restarting peace talks in recent discussions with visiting U.S. senators.

Syria, which borders northeastern Israel, is one of the Jewish state’s bitterest enemies through its alliance with Iran and support to the anti-Israel militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

In exchange for peace, Syria wants Israel to return land captured in the 1967 Six Day War war — the strategic Golan Heights and small areas of land that adjoin the Sea of Galilee, a main water source for Israel.

The prime minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said Mr. Barak was speaking on behalf of the government when he signaled to Syria that Israel was prepared to conduct serious negotiations.

Israel and Syria held several rounds of Turkish-mediated negotiations in 2008. They broke down after Israel invaded Gaza in 2009 to stop rocket attacks.

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