Photo: Niv Calderon
Defense Minister Amir Peretz
Photo: Niv Calderon
Gov't divided over Syria's call for talks
Syria's recent statement it is ready to return to negotiating table stands at heart of Sunday's cabinet meeting. PM Olmert pessimistic regarding Assad, while Defense Minister Peretz says proposals should be discussed

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem's calls for a renewal of peace negotiations with Israel this weekend were the focus of Sunday's cabinet meeting.


At the present time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands by his office's official stance that at this point Israel expects Syria to withdraw from its terrorist ways and not to support extremist influences, such as Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal, as a pre-condition for opening negotiations with them.


Olmert also said that "the German foreign minister was also disappointed by his visit in Damascus."


Meanwhile, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called on the cabinet to hold an emergency discussion about the declarations made by Assad and Moallem. In his statements to the cabinet, Peretz made it clear that the cabinet should not respond to every such sentence.


"We must make decisions relative to the significance of the Syrian arena and the priority that we give it. Is it important enough in order to enter negotiations and have we received the pre-conditions from Syria?" Peretz stated.


"Every agreement comes with a price tag, and in the Syrian context the price is clear. The question is whether it is strategically important for us to disconnect Syria from the radical axis and prevent it from cooperating with Hizbullah," he concluded.


Yishai: Assad set trap for Israel  

Minister of Tourism Isaac Herzog echoed Peretz's sentiment, saying that "Assad and Moallem's words should be examined."


He said, however, that "Syria currently extends one hand to Israel and offers negotiations, while the other hand provides weapons to some of the worst terror organizations, and harbors Khaled Mashaal. The disappointments of the past require us to be extra cautious."


Deputy Prime Minister and Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said in the cabinet meeting, "We must not fall into the trap Syrian President Bashar Assad has set for us. Assad operates under an organized plan to legitimize the terrorist group that represents Syria to the world."


"This is a virtual declaration. We must not be a tool that will serve Syria's internal interests. Any statement expresses willingness to concede before there is anything on the political horizon," said Minister Yishai.


Knesset Member Ami Ayalon, who is running for leadership of the Labor Party, said Saturday night that Israel must not reject Syria's overtures to initiate dialogue, but however warned that the option must not be ruled out that "we will find ourselves at war with Syria within a short time period."


Opposition Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu also stated Saturday that Assad's statements should be given consideration.


In an interview this weekend President Assad called on Israel to "take a chance, see if we're bluffing." His foreign minister, Walid Moallem, stated that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks.


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