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Syria: Israeli peace talk offer 'not serious'
( 2004-01-13 09:13) (Agencies)

Israel's president on Monday invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Jerusalem for negotiations with Israeli leaders, but Damascus dismissed the offer as a "media maneuver."

Although Moshe Katsav has largely only ceremonial powers, his surprise appeal added to pressure within Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government for the right-wing leader to respond favorably to Assad's recent call to resume peace talks broken off in 2000.

Israel's president on January 12, 2004 invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Jerusalem for negotiations with Israeli leaders, but Damascus rejected the offer as 'not serious.' Al-Assad arrives for a meeting with Turkish businessmen in Istanbul on Jan. 8.  [Reuters]
"I invite the president of Syria to come to Jerusalem and meet with the heads of the state and hold serious negotiations," Katsav said on Israel Radio.

Syria rejected the invitation -- opening the way for Israel to claim the diplomatic high ground. Syria called the invitation a diversion. Buthayna Shaaban, a Syrian government minister, said the offer "is not serious."

"All the smoke is only like a media balloon trying to draw attention away from real facts on the ground," Shaaban said in Damascus.

"What the Israelis are doing on the ground is building more settlements, occupying more territories [in the Golan Heights], doubling the number of settlers and then talking about visits," he said. "This is not serious. This is not serious talk at all."

"Partial solutions and media maneuvers do not achieve peace in the region...Syria's longstanding position is to resume negotiations from where they stopped," the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said.

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

But officials have said the two sides, still technically at war, were divided only over the issue of control of a narrow strip of land at water's edge. Israel was ruled by a center-left government at the time.

Sharon did not mention the invite to Syria in a later televised speech to parliament.

He was obliged to appear in parliament to outline his political plans after the opposition collected enough signatures calling for him to do so. He was expected to primarily speak about the conflict with the Palestinians, but the opposition also quizzed him over Syria.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, told Reuters: "He really didn't say anything substantive...clearly on the Syrian issue he is trying to evade any serious discussion."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon listens to an opposition Labor Party member criticize his policies, flanked by Sharon's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu, during a session of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 12, 2004.  [AP]
Agreement to resume the talks at the point at which they were suspended would effectively force Sharon to agree in advance to a pullout from almost all of the Golan Heights.


Sharon has rejected any preconditions for negotiations and has long opposed withdrawal from the strategic heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

Israel has voiced concern that Syria's peace gestures were an attempt to improve ties with Washington. But some Israeli politicians said Israel should negotiate with a Syrian leader they regard as weakened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, speaking to reporters in Cairo, said Washington supported "efforts to renew negotiations on the Syrian and other peace tracks."

Interrupted frequently by heckling from opposition left-wingers during his speech, Sharon reiterated his promise to impose "security" steps if Palestinians failed to dismantle militant groups as required by the U.S.-backed peace road map.

But he did not mention, as he had done in other recent speeches, his intention to dismantle some Jewish settlements on occupied territory and pull back to new "security lines" if the road map process collapsed.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier told the Jerusalem Post he estimated Sharon's plan would be implemented in the "second half of this year" if negotiations with the Palestinians do not resume.

Sharon said he would seek approval for any unilateral steps from the parliament prior to their implementation.

Sharon's omissions allowed him to avoid direct confrontation -- for now -- with nationalists in his coalition who oppose any territorial pullbacks or scrapping of settlements. Sharon has said such moves would cost Palestinians some of the land they seek for a state.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called Sharon's speech "an indication that the only plan he has is for the continuation of walls, occupation and settlements."

David Satterfield, a senior U.S. diplomat, pressured Israel on Monday to stop building settlements and told the Palestinians to rein in militants to revive peace talks.

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