Official: PM wrote to Assad to test desire for peace
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has dispatched some 20 messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad during the past year to better assess Syria's intentions before the possible resumption of talks between the two countries, according to a senior minister also in the security-political cabinet.
But the same source said Assad's responses did not meet Israeli expectations and Olmert believes that at this time it is not possible to initiate negotiations with Syria.
For his part, the Syrian president blamed Israel yesterday for the lack of progress. "Israel has rejected all peace initiatives that have been brought before it during the past three years and has responded with massacres and construction of settlements," he told the Arab League summit which began in Damascus yesterday.
According to the senior Israeli minister, most efforts for contact with Syria were made through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but also through others, including U.S. congressmen and various European officials.
The messages to Assad included attempts to understand what the agenda of the talks between the two countries would include, and whether Assad was willing to include in the talks his country's ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant organizations.
But the answers Israel received - and whose content was not made available to Haaretz - were not satisfactory for Israel, according to the senior minister.
"Each one of the envoys returned from Damascus with empty hands," the minister said. "The sense was that Assad is captive in the hands of senior figures of the Syrian regime who are opposed to talks with Israel and are not interested in breaking off the alliance with Iran."
Some of the foreign envoys who met with Assad said that they were surprised to see in his office, alongside photos of his dead father, photographs of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, which led them to believe that Syria is strongly committed to an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at a briefing of diplomats at the Labor Party's headquarters in Tel Aviv Friday that "in the end, Israel will meet Syria either in the field of battle or in the negotiating table."
"Syria is a weak country with many problems, but under certain conditions Israel will be willing to open the door to it," Barak added. "Israel considers negotiations with Syria and removing Syria from the circle of extremists as central to its policy."
Barak also referred to the situation along the northern border in his meeting with the foreign diplomats and said that the IDF is readying itself for any eventuality. "It would not be a good idea for someone to try something against us at this time," Barak said.
"We are following what is going on in the North, the growing strength of Hezbollah with Syrian backing and the developments over the border in Syria. Israel is the most powerful country in the region and this is what enables it to stand on guard but also try to seek [peace] agreements," Barak said.
On Friday, Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said in an interview on Israel Radio that "Israel is making every effort to restore Syria to the negotiating table. The efforts are constant and are being done through common friends."
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which is boycotting the Arab League summit along with Egypt and Jordan, to protest Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics, said yesterday that Syria should be punished for blocking a resolution to Lebanon's political crisis.
For more than a year, Lebanon has been the scene of a proxy struggle between the United States and its Arab allies, who back Prime Minister Fouad Seniora's government, and Syria, an ally of Iran and the Shi'ite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan embarrassed Assad by boycotting the Damascus summit. In a diplomatic snub, they sent low-level officials instead to the gathering.
Lebanon boycotted the summit completely, accusing Damascus of preventing the election of a new Lebanese president in order to destabilize the country and reassert its control over its neighbor.