Tuesday, January 13, 2004

JERUSALEM — Reports of a softening in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s negotiating position have done little to sway Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who shows scant interest in descending from the Golan Heights in return for peace.

Israeli news reports say Mr. Assad no longer is demanding a return to the borders existing before the 1967 Six Day War, an issue that stymied talks four years ago between his father, President Hafez Assad, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, who met with the Syrian president on Saturday, was quoted as saying that Mr. Assad also is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel from scratch, dropping his insistence that they pick up from the point where talks broke off in 2000.

Syrian officials denied that report, which appeared in the daily Ha’aretz.

“It’s impossible that the Syrian president said that he was ready to negotiate from scratch,” Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Syrian parliament, said in Damascus. “I confirm that this report is inaccurate.”

In proposing renewed negotiations last month, Mr. Assad had stipulated that they resume from where they had left off, because 80 percent of the issues had been resolved.

Mr. Barak reportedly had agreed to abandon the entire Golan Heights but balked at returning a narrow strip at the foot of the heights, which would have restored Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee — Israel’s main source of fresh water.

Mr. Sharon initially ignored Mr. Assad’s bid in a newspaper interview to resume negotiations and asked his ministers to refrain from public statements about it.

Mr. Sharon was reported to have said that the nation was not prepared to give up the Golan, even for peace. He also noted that Syria “gave medals to people who tortured Israeli prisoners” in the Yom Kippur War 30 years ago.

The Israeli prime minister said last weekend that he was prepared to resume talks “from scratch,” but only after Syria stopped harboring terrorist organizations and cut ties with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

The implication was that Mr. Sharon would seek to take back concessions offered by Mr. Barak. Israel’s Channel Two television network said Mr. Sharon would demand to keep parts of the heights, which Syrian gunners used before the Six Day War to shell Israeli communities below.

It was against this background that Israeli President Moshe Katsav took the unusual initiative on Sunday of inviting Mr. Assad to Jerusalem to discuss peace.

Mr. Katsav appeared to be attempting to force Mr. Sharon, as much as Mr. Assad, into a dialogue. A Syrian spokeswoman termed the invitation “a trick to evade serious peace talks.”

Meanwhile, an investigation of illegal campaign funding involving Mr. Sharon and his two sons was amplified Monday when a consultant who had helped Mr. Sharon’s election campaign showed tapes on Israel Television that seemed to implicate the prime minister directly.

Mr. Sharon had told police investigators that he had no knowledge of money transfers, but the tapes show him to be taking a detailed interest in the transactions.

The police are expected to make known soon their findings about the investigation of suspected bribes, fraud and breach of trust.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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