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The U.S. ambassador to Israel reiterated Monday that Washington has not been pressuring Israel to rebuff Syrian offers of peace talks, denying a Haaretz report that the Americans have withdrawn their opposition to negotiations between Israel and Syria.

"Do American and Israeli foreign policies differ on Syria? Does the United States stop Israel starting peace discussions with Syria? No. No," Ambassador Richard Jones told a conference at Bar Ilan on Monday.

"Israel is not negotiating with Syria because Israel doesn't trust Syria anymore than the United States does," he added.

Jones told Haaretz earlier Monday that he had first heard of the policy change when he read in the newspaper that morning. Jones, who previously maintained that the U.S. had no say regarding Israeli talks with Syria, said that he had been surprised by the report Monday.

Jones said that while the United States keeps a close eye on Syrian activity and is working to step up implementation of a United Nations arms embargo against Hezbollah, it sees no immediate Syrian military threat to Israel.

"We certainly would view a buildup of force in Syria as a source of concern," he said. "In this regard I would stress our commitment to the qualitative military edge for Israel."

U.S. policy turnabout may enable Israel to enter talks with SyriaWashington has given Israel the green light to accept Syrian President Bashar Assad's call for peace talks, in a change of position accompanied by several preconditions.

The Bush administration has given Israel permission to discuss the future of the Golan Heights, security arrangements and Israeli-Syrian peace accords if it agrees to talks with Syria.

However, Washington has stipulated that Israel must not agree to any negotiations, even indirectly, on the United States' position, or on the future of Lebanon.

Furthermore, Israel must not make promises to Syria regarding U.S. policy. According to the new position, Washington will deal directly with Syria on these matters.

Syria's role in terrorism, the presence of terrorist organizations in Damascus and its involvement in smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and the Palestinian territories are currently issues which the U.S. is not discussing with Damascus.

Iran and its military connection with Syria is also not a topic that is open to discussion at present.

During a recent visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded forcefully when the issue of Assad's call for a resumption of negotiations with Israel was raised.

"It is best that you avoid even exploring this possibility," she said.

Israel's government interpreted this as a firm American stance preventing Syria from taking advantage of talks with Israel to extricate itself from diplomatic isolation before fulfilling its obligation to control insurgents from crossing into Iraq, and before meeting the demands of the international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

In past closed meetings, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has argued that U.S. President George Bush opposes talks between Israel and Damascus.

Mossad chief Meir Dagan also opposed talks with Syria. However military intelligence leaders including former Military Intelligence chief, Major General (res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, and his successor, Major General Amos Yadlin, were in favor.

Former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon raised the issue of talks with Syria in meetings with former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who rejected the proposal.

The American position changed due Syria's participation in the Arab League summit in Riyadh.

During the meeting of Iraq's neighbors, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem adopted a moderate position. Rice then held a private meeting with Mualem.

Rice intends to invite Syria as well as Palestinian representatives and Israel to an international summit on the Arab-Israeli conflict, according to a plan being drafted by the U.S. State Department.

If this occurs, the American position regarding possible talks between Israel and Syria will no longer be relevant.