A covert message was conveyed this weekend from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to Syrian President Bashar Assad through US Senator Arlen Specter, Ynet learned Saturday.
The senator landed in Israel and made his way to Damascus. He was invited by Assad in order to attempt to launch negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem.
Israeli officials believe the Syrian president's timing was not accidental, and that the country is altering its position on talks with Israel following new sanctions on Iran.
Jerusalem is awaiting a call from Specter, who is scheduled to fly back to the US on Monday. There have been no clear signs that his presence will lead to talks, but officials say the fact that he was invited to Syria, and that he passed through Jerusalem on his way, signifies a change in Syrian policy.
Specter recently lost the Democratic primaries after 5 terms (30 years) as Pennsylvania's senator. In fact, Specter had been a moderate republican for many years, but in 2009 crossed the party line and joined the democrats.
Assad and Specter in 2008 meeting (Photo: Reuters)
The 80-year old senator has visited Syria 18 times in the past. His last meeting with Assad was in December of 2008, when the two discussed the then-ongoing Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The operation was soon named by Syria as the reason for cutting short talks with Israel, then under Turkish mediation.
The current push for talks began two weeks ago with a phone call from Assad to Specter, just days after US President Barack Obama signed off on additional sanctions on Iran, which joined the recent round of UN sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Officials believe Obama's firm stance against the Syrian ally led Assad to reevaluate his options.
Assad and Specter scheduled a meeting for this weekend, but the senator wanted to meet with Israeli officials beforehand. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are currently abroad, however, so Specter met with Lieberman's deputy, Danny Ayalon, who conveyed Israel's official message to Syria.
During the meeting that took place in Jerusalem, Ayalon told Specter that Israel wanted peace, but that negotiations must begin with no preconditions. He said Israel would agree to hold the talks "anytime, anywhere", either public or covert.
When asked about a possible military conflict this summer, Ayalon told the senator Israel was not planning to attack its northern neighbors. He also asked that Specter convey a message to Assad saying the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit would be an excellent gesture of goodwill before the talks.
The offices of both Netanyahu and Ayalon refused to comment on the report, but Lieberman's office said the messages conveyed by his deputy were in line with his own position.