Katsav offers free talks with Syria

Israeli President Moshe Katsav has offered Syria peace negotiations in "secret or public" without pre-conditions.

    Al-Asad (L) and Katsav: Could the Israeli-Syrian peace track move forward?

    Speaking on Aljazeera television, the Israeli president said on Tuesday they would be willing to change the venue of possible talks. On Monday, Katsav invited Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to Jerusalem for peace negotiations.

    Damascus dismissed Monday's offer as "not serious" and a "media manoeuvre".

    Katsav said the ball was in Syria's court and called on al-Asad to prove he was serious about peace.

    The Israeli president, whose post is largely ceremonial, said Syria's continued support for the Lebanese resistance group Hizb Allah, its alleged smuggling of arms to the group through Iran and hosting some Palestinian resistance groups in Damascus made Israel "suspicious" of al-Asad's seriousness.

    Previous talks

    Israel, along with its ally Washington, accuses Hizb Allah of being a "terrorist" organisation. Syria denies arming the resistance group, which ousted Israeli forces from south Lebanon, after a 22-year occupation, in May 2000.

    Damascus dismissed the initial
    invitation as ''media manoeuvre''

    Katsav said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had signalled his readiness to hold talks with al-Asad. Sharon opposes a withdrawal from the Golan, one of Syria's key conditions for peace.

    The Israeli president criticised the Syrian leader's suggestion of resuming negotiations from where they broke off at the 2000 Shepherdstown talks. 

    Failed attempts

    At Shepherdstown former US President Bill Clinton mediated meetings between the late Syrian leader Hafiz al-Asad and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

    Those negotiations ended without an agreement on the future of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Israel's biggest reservoir.

    Syria demands a complete withdrawal from the Golan, which Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel annexed the strategic plateau in 1981, drawing international criticism.

    Earlier this month, Syria complained to the UN about a possible Israeli plan to increase the number of settlers on the Golan.

    US support

    On the diplomatic front, US Middle East envoy William Burns said he believed Egypt would help encourage any chances to revive the Syrian-Israeli peace track.

    Egyptian FM Ahmad Mahir (R), 
    US Middle East envoy William Burns

    "We did talk about Syria and the Syrian-Israeli track to compare notes on that issue," the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs told a press conference in Cairo, after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Mahir.

    Burns said Egyptian President Husni Mubarak had been recently consulted on the matter.

    And on Monday, Clinton said a Syrian-Israeli peace deal might also change policies in Israel in finding a resolution to its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.

    For his part, Mahir said he expressed "harsh criticism" of Israel's approach to reviving the frozen track.

    "The US official (Burns) heard from me harsh criticism of the
    positions expressed today by Israeli officials, as they totally
    contradict international resolutions and decisions," said the Egyptian foreign minister.


    "I did not hear any defense (from Burns) of the Israeli position
    because it cannot be defended," he added.


    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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