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Syrian President Bashar Assad (archive photo)
Photo: AFP
Israeli officials say Syria seems serious about talks
Meeting between Rice, Syrian foreign minister may have opened door for revival of peace talks, Israeli officials and former diplomat say. 'We lose sleep at night worrying that this may be a trap,' source in Olmert's office says
There is a growing consensus within the Israeli government that Syria is serious about resuming negotiations with the Jewish state, Israeli officials involved in the assessment said on Saturday.

 

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and a former Israeli diplomat who drafted an unofficial peace plan, said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent meeting with the Syrian foreign minister may have opened the door for reviving the long-dormant Israeli-Syrian track.

 

But it was unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would respond positively to the public and private overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Israeli officials and the former diplomat, Alon Liel, told Reuters.

 

Western diplomats say Olmert appeared to be receptive to the idea of Syrian talks, although officials in his office said the prime minister remained skeptical of Assad’s intentions.

 

“We lose sleep at night worrying that this may be a trap,” a senior Israeli official involved in the review said.

 

With Israeli-Palestinian talks frozen and an offensive underway in Gaza, Olmert could benefit from any positive diplomatic movement on the northern border after a scathing report on his handling of last year’s war in Lebanon.

 

“There are too many signals that Assad wants to talk and many signals that he is interested in finalizing an agreement,” Liel said.

 

“It’s irresponsible for a prime minister not to check these signals. If he checks and finds that Syria is not ready, he can come to the public and explain it. But if he does not check and we have a war, he will be personally responsible for the war.”

 

‘Olmert is the key person here’

Liel and a Syrian-American businessman worked on a blueprint for peace in talks from 2004-2006. War erupted between Israel and the Syrian-backed Lebanese group Hizbullah last July.

 

Since then, Assad has voiced interest in resuming talks with Israel that stalled in 2000 over Damascus’ demand for a return of the occupied Golan Heights. Syria has also hinted that it could resort to military force if it deems diplomacy a dead end.

 

Olmert’s office declined to comment but an Israeli government official said earlier this week that the prime minister still sees the Syrian government “as not yet ready for the hard choices needed to make peace”.

 

Olmert has demanded that Syria cease supporting Hizbullah and Palestinian militant groups as a condition of resuming talks, and dismissed Syrian overtures as a bid to improve ties with the West.

 

But in recent months, in coordination with Olmert’s office, Israel’s Foreign Ministry and intelligence agencies have conducted a review of Assad’s public and private messages.

 

“We have reached the conclusion that they (the overtures) are serious. We think that he (Assad) is serious”, Said a senior official involved in the inter-agency review.

 

The official said there was still considerable concern on the Israeli side that Damascus would try to use negotiations to divert attention away from Syria’s military build-up.

 

“We don’t have any concrete evidence that this is not a trap to paralyze Israel’s ability to counter Syria’s military build-up. But we don’t have any concrete evidence that it is a trap.”

 

Israeli officials said the conclusions of the inter-agency review have been discussed at the highest levels of government, but Olmert has yet to make clear where he stands.

 

“So if there is a change, it is in Olmert’s mind himself and this is very important. He is the key person here,” Liel said.

 

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