Syrian President Open to Israel Talks

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 25, 2008

CAIRO, April 24 -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview published Thursday that he was open to direct talks with Israel on a peace deal based on Israel's return of the Golan Heights. But he added that such negotiations could only happen under U.S. sponsorship after the Bush administration leaves office.

Assad's comments to the al-Watan newspaper of Qatar acknowledged the likelihood of heavy opposition to such talks within the U.S. government and among Israeli hawks, who value the Golan's strategic heights as a buffer against possible Syrian hostilities.

"Maybe with a future American administration -- we can talk then of direct negotiations," Assad said in the interview.

"This administration doesn't possess a vision, or a willingness for a peaceful progress,'' he said. "It doesn't possess anything."

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, and effectively annexed the area in 1981 by extending Israeli civil law to its Arab and Druze residents. Overlooking the Galilee, the region is home to about 20,000 Israeli settlers who would be difficult to uproot under any future peace deal.

Syria and Israel last held direct peace talks in 2000. The negotiations, mediated by President Clinton in the waning days of his administration, foundered over how much authority Syria would have over the coast along the Sea of Galilee.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is spending the Passover holiday in the Golan, told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot last week that Israel and Syria had recently set out mutual demands that would have to be addressed in a future peace deal. He called the step "a significant move" toward peace.

In his interview, Assad said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been serving as a middleman for an exchange of messages between Israel and Syria since April 2007. About a week ago, Assad said, Erdogan relayed what the Turkish leader said was Israel's willingness to return the Golan.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said he could neither confirm nor deny the content of Assad's remarks.

But Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that there had been an exchange of views between Israel and Syria through Turkey's government.

"As far as actual negotiations, I would not hold my breath," said one high-ranking Israeli official.

Witte contributed from Jerusalem.

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