Sharon Rejected U.S. Proposal for Talks With Syria

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected an American proposal last year to resume the talks between Israel and Syria, he said in a Rosh Hashana interview with Haaretz.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected an American proposal last year to resume the talks between Israel and Syria, he said in a Rosh Hashana interview with Haaretz.

"It was immediately taken off the agenda and they're not raising it any more," Sharon said, adding that White House envoy Elliot Abrams had made the proposal when the two met in Rome in November 2003.

"He wanted to talk with me then on the Syrian issue," said Sharon. "He spoke about what the Syrians were trying to do, that they would enter into negotiations with Israel."

During the conversation Sharon surprised Abrams, when he brought up for the first time his proposal for a unilateral move consisting of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and evacuating the settlements there.

Until that stage, the present American administration had not displayed an interest in the resumption of the peace talks between Israel and Syria, which had been in the center of the former administration's policy for this region. The Israeli-Syrian talks were halted in 2000, and since then relations between the U.S. and Syria entered a deep freeze. The Americans have been exerting heavy pressure on Damascus to modify its conduct and soften its radical positions.

It appears that after the fall of Mahmoud Abbas' (Abu Mazen) cabinet in the Palestinian Authority and the collapse of the political effort to promote the road map, the U.S. tried to to revive the Syrian track. Two weeks after Sharon met Abrams in Rome, Syrian President Bashar Assad made a public overture to resume the negotiations. In an interview with The New York Times, Assad called for renewed talks, and spoke of "normalization" with Israel "similar to the relations between Syria and the U.S."

Assad repeated these proposals last week at a meeting with former American ambassador Martin Indyk.

Sharon rejected Assad's proposals then and now, arguing that they were intended merely to soften, or remove, American pressure on Syria.

In the interview with Haaretz, Sharon reiterated his demands from Assad: removing the Palestinian terror headquarters from Damascus, stopping aid to the Palestinian terror groups, deploying the Lebanese army in the south of the state and keeping the Hezbollah away from the border, dismantling the Hezbollah's missile and rocket apparatus, and removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Lebanon.

"If we saw that all these measures are being taken, it would be possible to think," he said.

Sharon rejected out of hand a full withdrawal from the Golan, which had been discussed in the past in the peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Asked if he accepted Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon's assessment that if an agreement is reached with Syria, Israel could be protected without the Golan, Sharon responded: "I don't think we can agree to the Syrians' demands regarding the borders and water problems. I had the privilege to serve as Northern commander at the time of the water struggle. There is no way, under any circumstances, to return today to what we talked about in previous discussions. Those discussions, in the days of several prime ministers [Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak] were certainly very dangerous to Israel."

Asked if he was referring to prime ministers from both parties, Sharon answered "Yes."

The full interview with the prime minister will appear tomorrow in Haaretz's Rosh Hashanah edition.