- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

Israel’s envoy to the United States said Tuesday that the main reason his government began talks with Syria earlier this year was to “bring about a strategic repositioning” in the Middle East by breaking up Damascus’ alliance with Iran.

In the most direct and frank public discussion by a senior Israeli official of the Jewish state’s rationale to talk to the Syrians, Ambassador Sallai Meridor said that a “U-turn” in Syria’s policy is a “litmus test” for reaching a broad peace agreement with Damascus.

“There can’t be true peace if Syria continues to align with the Iranian regime and with terror groups,” such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Mr. Meridor told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“By far, the first reason to engage with the Syrians is to explore whether there is a chance for a strategic U-turn, and to have them separated from their special relationship with Iran and stopping their harboring, encouraging and supporting of terror,” he said.

The indirect talks, which are being facilitated by Turkey, have yet to yield any positive results, but “it’s so important that for us it was worth trying to explore,” Mr. Meridor said.

He compared the current negotiations with former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s efforts to achieve peace with Israel in the 1970s, which ended with the historic Camp David accords concluded with the active participation of then-President Jimmy Carter.

“If they choose to move a la Sadat, then we’ll know that we have contributed to a significant change for the better, not only for us, but for the world,” Mr. Meridor said. “If they choose not to, we know where we stand and we know that we tried.”

He also said that Israel is prepared to make “very painful compromises” in exchange for Syria’s breaking away from Iran’s influence, though he declined to be more specific.

Asked whether the United States has advised or otherwise contributed to Israel’s reachout effort, the ambassador said that nothing of what Israel has done so far was a surprise to Washington.

He said repeatedly that the prospect of Iran building a nuclear weapon is the most serious security threat in the Middle East today. “The window of opportunity” to deter that threat “is narrowing but not yet closed,” he added.

The three rounds of U.N. sanctions on Tehran so far are “not enough,” Mr. Meridor said. He called on European companies to consider cutting the supply of refined gasoline products to Iran as a way to put more pressure on the regime.

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