Hamas: Olmert too weak to negotiate peace agreement with Syria
Meshal says doubtful about Israel's seriousness in negotiations; Iran reportedly irate at renewed talks.
Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshal said on Saturday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is too weak to take the necessary steps for peace with Syria and expressed doubts about Israel's seriousness in negotiations.
Meshal's comments came during a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki, in response to a question about Wednesday's announcement that Israel and Syria had restarted direct peace negotiations.
"There is great skepticism concerning the seriousness (of Israel) to return the Golan," he said, referring to a strategic plateau captured by Israel in 1967.
"It's maneuvering and playing with all the (negotiating) tracks - it's a well known game and besides, Olmert's weakness will not allow him to take this step."
A corruption probe and calls for Olmert's resignation have raised doubts about his ability to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians by a year-end target, or pursue recently confirmed peace talks with Syria.
Meshal, who resides in Damascus, was careful not to criticize Syria's decision to restart negotiations with Israel and said he was sure the renewed talks would not come at the expense of the Palestinian track.
The Hamas leader also renewed his condemnation of the Israeli-led blockade of blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas overran the coastal territory a year ago, and he once again threatened to forcibly reopen the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
"If the international community and the concerned parties don't take the initiative and break the siege, we will break it ourselves. We insist on opening all crossings, particularly Rafah."
Israel and Syria announced Wednesday the restarting of peace talks after an eight year hiatus.
Israel has said Syria must cut ties with Hamas and Iran as a condition of any agreement. The state-run Tishrin however, says in Saturday's editorial that any preconditions to a deal would put the carriage before the horse and Syria's relations with other nations were not on the bargaining table.
Saturday's editorial in the paper, which reflects official policy, comes in response to comments two days earlier by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that Syria had to stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and cut ties with Iran.
Sources close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday said that he was unable to conceal his disappointment and surprise at the news of renewed peace talks.
In an interview with the London-based newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, the sources said that Ahmadinejad characterized the reports as a violation by Damascus of the two countries' mutual responsibilities toward one another.
The sources added that the Iranian leader also received detailed information about the secret negotiations weeks before the Syrian foreign minister's recent visit to Tehran.
According to the newspaper, Iran's Supreme National Security Council is preparing a response to a letter from Syria that mentioned its contact with Israel.
An Iranian editor also revealed to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the council instructed Iranian communications outlets and official Web sites not to refer at all to the Israel-Syria talks until further notice.
Senior Israeli sources on Thursday said that the announcement of the renewal of negotiations between Israel and Syria will have an immediate effect on Iran's status in the region.
The officials noted that Iran has not yet responded publicly to the talks. "It seems the Iranians are in shock," one of them said.
Israel and Syria will resume the indirect peace talks in a week or two, Turkish and Israeli government officials said on Friday.
Israel and Syria on Wednesday announced they had begun an open dialogue with the aim of a comprehensive peace, the first confirmation of negotiations between the long-time enemies in eight years.
"The two parties agreed to meet regularly. The next round will be in Istanbul in a week or in 10 days," said a Turkish government official, who declined to be named. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev also confirmed he expected another round in Turkey shortly.
Olmert told French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner Thursday that both sides know what they need to do for peace and insisted that Israel had not made any prior commitments to the Syrians. "I told them if you want to talk come and talk. The Syrians know what we want and we know what they want," Olmert told Kouchner.
Olmert told Kouchner that the talks with Syria would not detract from peace efforts on the Palestinian front, saying that "Israel intends to hold parallel peace talks [with the Palestinian Authority and Syria] without having one set of talks take precedence over the other."
However, Israeli officials feel that there is a better chance of reaching an agreement with the Syrians than with the Palestinians, and a Syrian agreement has a better chance of being implemented.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Bureau said that "the Syrians are serious and their intentions appear to be sincere. It is clear that if we reach an agreement it will be possible to implement it."
The sources say it should be easier to reach a deal with the Syrians because the issues on the Syrian front are only territorial, while those relating to the Palestinians concern a number of sensitive matters including land.
In addition, because President Bashar Assad has full control over Syria, an agreement with him will be honored and implemented, Israeli officials say.
The talks on both the Syrian and Palestinian fronts will continue for now, with the Palestinian negotiations in the hands of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The talks with the Syrians will be handled by the prime minister's bureau.
Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented a unified front Thursday regarding Israel's expectations from Syria.
Livni said Syria must distance itself from Tehran and cut ties to Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah and Hamas if it wants to make peace with Israel.
"Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbors, but Syria also needs to understand that it needs full renunciation of supporting terror - Hezbollah, Hamas and of course Iran," Livni said. She called Syria's ties with Iran "problematic," referring to the Israeli accusations that the Islamic republic sponsors Hamas and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
"The Syrians also need to understand that ... they must distance themselves completely from their ... problematic ties with Iran," Livni said before the start of a meeting with Kouchner.
Barak discussed the talks in public for the first time Thursday, tempering high hopes by saying that the road to peace is long.
"The Syrians know that concessions are a two-way street, and the distance from here to a peace agreement is vast," Barak said, speaking at a ceremony for Israel Defense Forces reservists at the President's Residence.
"Peace will come only from a position of power and security," Livni said.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who also met with Kouchner, told him that while Israel is ready to make painful concessions for peace, an agreement will not be reached if Damascus continues to provide support to Hezbollah and Hamas, and to serve as Iran's central ally.
Olmert spoke to the 27 ambassadors from EU nations in Tel Aviv and called on the EU to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations. He asked them to support sanctions on groups that aid Hezbollah and to prevent the transfer of funds to the group.
Israel has asked the EU numerous times to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and more so since the Second Lebanon War. But many European countries refuse due to the complex Lebanese political situation and Hezbollah's participation in the Lebanese government.
The EU lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, and keeps to the official policy of not having any contact with the group, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and does not renounce terror.
On Wednesday, Olmert told Kadima and Labor Party officials that the defense establishment had been in on the secret of the Syrian talks, and that Barak was updated on their progress. Olmert said Barak supported him and gave advice.
Livni was also updated on the Syrian channel, Olmert said, except for the last few days when the talks were held in Turkey. In addition, the Americans knew of the talks, but did not take a stand one way or the other.
The security cabinet is expected to meet next Thursday to discuss the northern front, and most likely the talks with Syria as well. On Sunday, the cabinet will have a security briefing; a number of ministers are expected to voice reservations on the negotiations with Syria.