A Syrian member of parliament thought to be familiar with the thinking of President Bashar al-Assad is quoted in the London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi on Saturday as saying that Syria could strike Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona as retaliation for any future violations of Syrian sovereignty.
In an interview with the paper, Mohammad Habash noted that Dimona is well within range of Syrian missiles, and that Damascus does not rule out the possibility of additional Israeli attacks against it.
As such, Habash added that Syria has no interest in escalating tensions between the two countries, and that diplomatic efforts are underway to renew contacts with Jerusalem over a possible peace deal. Habash said that no such contacts are currently being held.
An attempt to exchange messages between Israel and Syria in recent months has failed. European diplomatic sources said that the reason for the impasse was the inability to reach an agreed-upon agenda for talks between the two countries. But in off-the-record conversations, several sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say that "the Syrian track still has higher chances of success when compared to the Palestinian track."
In the past few months, Israel approached Assad via a number of friendly states, in an effort to evaluate the possibility of renewing direct contact. The main interlocutor in these exchanges has been Turkey, but Israel also made use of the good services of Germany, which still holds an open line of communications with Damascus.
Following a series of exchanges, the view in Israel is that the seriousness of Syrian intentions is still questionable.
European diplomats updated on some of the exchanges noted that "the bottom line was a negative one."
They pointed out that there was no agreement on an agenda for talks between the two sides, assuming such talks would actually take place.
"The Syrians wanted the talks to revolve only on the Golan [Heights]," the European diplomats said. "But Israel wanted to first talk about other issues that trouble it, such as [Syria's] ties with Iran and the support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and Syria did not agree."
Olmert may be interested in furthering the Annapolis process, but increasingly, senior officials feel that the Syrian track must be given a chance to move forward.
"It is a lot simpler and it is possible to achieve an agreement in a short time," one of Olmert's confidants said. "The only problem is that the Syrians are not sending positive signals."
Another source close to Olmert was more optimistic. "The fact that they [Syria] came to Annapolis and canceled the conference of terrorist groups in Damascus were positive and encouraging signals."
A statement from the Prime Minister's Office said that Olmert "is carrying out an evaluation of the Syrian track and that is still ongoing."
The U.S., however, is strongly opposed to any goodwill gesture toward Damascus.
President George W. Bush told a White House press conference yesterday that his patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad had run out long ago.
"Syria needs to stay out of Lebanon," Bush said when asked whether he would be willing to talk to Assad about stabilizing Lebanon, which is caught up in a political crisis over the election of a new president.
"My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago," Bush said.
"The reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq and he destabilizes Lebanon," the president said.
Earlier this week, during a foreign ministers' meeting at the Paris conference of donor nations for the Palestinian Authority, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attacked Syria for what she said was a missed opportunity at Annapolis.
"Annapolis was a chance we gave Syria and its test were the [presidential] elections in Lebanon. So far, the Syrians have failed completely."
European diplomatic sources said that "Syria is undermining any chance for an accord [in Lebanon] and is pushing Hezbollah and the rest of its allies in Lebanon to raise the bar on their demands."
The same sources said that Assad is interested in giving the impression, whatever the cost may be, "that without him nothing will move in Lebanon," and therefore the assessment is that the crisis there will continue.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now