Netanyahu cool to calls for fresh Syria talks
Prime minister tells Spanish FM he does not believe that Syria is prepared to distance itself from Iran.
The defense establishment is pushing for a peace deal with Syria, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cool to the idea - and Syrian leaders responded Wednesday to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's call for renewed peace talks by threatening total war.
Two days ago, addressing a group of senior Israeli officers, Barak said it was vital to resume peace talks with Syria because otherwise war was likely to break out. Then, "immediately after such a war, we'll sit down to negotiate and discuss exactly the same things we've been discussing with the Syrians for 15 years already."
Barak's statement was not meant to threaten Syria, but to persuade Israelis of the urgency of resuming peace talks. However, based on their response, it is not clear that Syrian leaders interpreted it that way.
During a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in Damascus Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that Israel was pushing the Middle East toward a new war.
"All the facts point that Israel is driving the region toward war, not peace," the official Syrian news agency quoted him as saying. "Israel is not serious about wanting peace."
At a news conference with Moratinos, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Israel "was planting the seeds of the war atmosphere" by threatening attacks on Iran, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
"I tell them [Israel], stop acting like thugs," Moallem said. "Do not test the resolve of Syria. You Israelis, you know that war at this time will reach your cities. If such a war breaks out ... it will indeed be total war, whether it begins in south Lebanon or Syria. And it is inconceivable that afterward, the younger generation will see peace talks .... Return to your senses and seek the road of peace."
Despite his call for peace, Moallem's remarks further escalated tensions in the north. They were also noteworthy for the implication - rarely heard from Syrian officials - that a conflict in south Lebanon could lead to war with Syria as well.
A few hours before he headed to Damascus, Moratinos was in Israel, where he raised the Syrian issue with Netanyahu at a meeting Tuesday night. The Spanish minister said he believed Assad was serious about wanting peace and was willing to disengage his country from Iran and Hezbollah. Therefore, it was vital to resume Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
He also offered to mediate between Israel and Turkey so that the latter could resume the role of mediator in talks. Ankara mediated the indirect talks with Damascus conducted by Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu, however, said he did not share Moratinos' belief that Syria was ready to leave Iran's orbit. "I've seen no evidence whatsoever of what you're saying," the prime minister said.
"I understood Assad Sr., with whom I conducted negotiations very well," Netanyahu continued, referring to Bashar's father, former Syrian president Hafez Assad. "But unfortunately, I simply don't understand Assad Jr. I don't know what he wants."
The defense establishment, however, does not share Netanyahu's skepticism. There, the consensus is that peace with Syria would drive a wedge between Tehran and Damascus, and that the benefits of an Israeli-Syrian deal are therefore worth the price of giving up the Golan Heights.
Barak is the leading public exponent of this view; he also believes that the chances Israel and Syria could reach a peace deal are fairly high. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi also agrees with this assessment, as does most of the General Staff.
A month ago, for instance, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence, said in a lecture at Tel Aviv University that peace with Syria "has the potential for a positive change - removing Syria from the circle of violence, distancing it from the radical axis and ending its support for terror."
And Moratinos clearly heard this message: At the press conference, he rejected his hosts' accusations against Israel, saying that during his trip to Jerusalem, he did not "hear the drums of war," but rather, "a yearning for peace."