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The United States is not preventing Israel from holding negotiations with Syria and the decision on whether to proceed on this matter is in the hands of the Israeli government, according to U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones speaking to a group of academics at the Davis Institute for International Affairs at the Hebrew University on Monday.

The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv refused to comment on the ambassador's statements, saying that the meeting was a closed forum. However, the deputy press attache at the embassy, Geoff Anisman, said Tuesday, "we are unaware that any U.S. official has ever expressed an opinion on what Israel should or should not do with regard to Syria."

Ambassador Jones, who participates in the meetings of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visits to Israel, told the crowd of academics that in all the meetings in which he took part there was never a demand that Israel avoid contacts with Syria.

Jones said he does not consider Syria a partner in the diplomatic process so long as it supports terrorist organizations and aids Hezbollah. He added that the Syrians have not done enough to lift doubts that they are interested in negotiations solely as a means of receiving international legitimacy.

"If the Syrians change the situation," the ambassador said, "the situation will also change."

During the meeting at the Davis Institute, Ambassador Jones also discussed the Arab peace initiative that is expected to be approved at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, scheduled to take place late this month.

According to the American diplomat this is an attempt to develop a regional link to the peace process, which presents Israel with a broad diplomatic horizon, and goes beyond a settlement with the Palestinians.

Jones said that the peace initiative may transform Israel into an accepted entity in the Middle East.

The Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which paved the way to a national unity government in the Palestinian Authority, has disrupted American plans for dealing with the political situation in the territories.

Ambassador Jones appears to have been referring to American plans to bolster Fatah through economic and military assistance as a counter to Hamas and as a way of restoring the leadership of the Palestinian government to Fatah.

Jones said that the United States is firm on the three preconditions set by the Quartet before the Palestinian government can be recognized and receive economic assistance - namely, recognition of Israel, adoption of earlier PLO-Israel accords, and renunciation of violence.

However, he did note that the administration has currently adopted a "wait and see" attitude.

In addition to the demands of the Palestinians, the United States expects that Israel will also meet its obligations, including dismantling outposts and freezing construction in the settlements.

The ambassador warned that in the absence of conditions for the renewal of the peace process a political void may develop and quickly be filled by violence.

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