- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israel turned down a Syrian offer, made on the eve of the war in Iraq, to reopen peace talks for the first time in three years, a senior source in the prime minister’s office said yesterday.The initiative was discussed during secret meetings in Jordan between the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a former Israeli Foreign Ministry chief, according to an article in yesterday’s Ma’ariv newspaper.But after consulting with intelligence and security analysts, Israel demurred, the source told The Washington Times. “There was serious doubt as to the sincerity, the seriousness and the intentions of the Syrians.”The Syrians were represented in the Jordan talks by Maher Assad, who said he had been dispatched by his older brother, the Syrian president, Ma’ariv said.The Israeli side was led by Eitan Benstur, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who reported on the discussions to the government, though he functioned in an informal capacity.With the United States using the momentum from the victory in Iraq to pressure Mr. Assad’s regime, Israel believes that agreeing to restart peace talks would let Syria off the hook, the source said.The prime minister prefers to wait to see whether Syria shows signs of compliance with U.S. demands, a position at odds with Israel’s long-standing offer to hold talks with Syria’s president “at any time and in any place without preconditions.”Making good on that promise now would undermine U.S. efforts to get Syria to close down militant training camps in southern Lebanon as well as militant offices in Damascus, and to abandon programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the source said.Israeli-Syrian peace talks in January 2000 faltered on disagreements about the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.The report of the Syrian peace overture comes one week after Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, told Israeli television that Mr. Assad had asked him to inquire in Israel about reopening talks.Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on a visit to the region last week that he expects Syria, which controls security affairs in neighboring Lebanon, to order Hezbollah guerrillas to leave regions in southern Lebanon used to launch attacks into Israel.The secretary of state will return to the Middle East next week to promote the “road map” to peace, a U.S.-led initiative aimed at ending 30 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and restarting talks on a final peace settlement.Laying the groundwork for next week’s talks, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns visited the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the road map with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas after meeting with Israeli officials yesterday.”We conveyed to Mr. Burns our unconditional acceptance of the road map,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was present at the 90-minute meeting. “We asked Mr. Burns about what the Israeli response is to the road map.”The Palestinians have accused Israel of obstructing implementation of the plan by submitting a list of 14 detailed objections.Israel wants the confidence-building measures required of it by the plan to be conditioned on steps by the Palestinians to tighten security. The Palestinians say the road map stipulations should be fulfilled in parallel and be confirmed by an international monitor.In rejecting the Syrian peace offer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is abandoning the policy of four Israeli prime ministers — Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — who tried to cut a peace deal with Syria before the Palestinians.Israeli governments have long said they believe that a peace treaty with Syria would weaken the bargaining position of the Palestinians and reduce the need for Israeli concessions in a settlement. But Mr. Sharon doesn’t subscribe to the Syria-first approach, experts said.”Everybody knows what the price of a Syrian deal is,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, referring to withdrawal from the Golan Heights.Mr. Sharon “may feel that in his tenure, the Palestinian negotiations are enough.”

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