- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister attempted to end a war of words with Syria on Sunday, saying his country is open to peace talks with its longtime enemy.

Israel desires peace agreements with “all of its neighbors,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We did it with Egypt and Jordan, and we want to achieve similar agreements with the Palestinians and the Syrians,” he said. “I hope that we are on the brink of renewing negotiations with the Palestinians, and we are open to renewing the process with the Syrians as well.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments came after an ominous exchange of threats between Israeli and Syrian officials over the past week, raising concerns of an escalation between two countries, which officially have been at war for more than 60 years.

Syrian President Bashar Assad accused Israel of avoiding peace, and his foreign minister threatened that Israeli cities would come under attack in a future war. Israel’s foreign minister responded that Syria would be defeated and Assad and his family would lose power in any future conflict.

It has been a quarter-century since Israel and Syria fought directly, but Syria backs anti-Israel forces such as the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic organization Hamas. Israel’s sworn enemy Iran backs Hamas and Hezbollah.

The central point of disagreement between Israel and Syria is the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed. Syria has demanded a full withdrawal from the Golan as a condition for peace.

Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would not accept preconditions to negotiations, indicating he would not agree ahead of time to a Golan withdrawal. He also said any agreement would have to guarantee Israel’s security.

Indirect talks between Syria and Israel’s previous government ended unsuccessfully in late 2008.

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