PM, Mofaz Adopt 'Wait and See' Approach to Talks With Syria

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will reassess the possibility of restarting talks with Syria in another month, once it becomes clear "where the Syrians stand" in the regional and international arena, the Prime Minister's Office said Monday.

In particular, the government wants to see whether Syria indeed takes action on issues such as closing down the offices of terrorist organizations headquartered in Damascus and withdrawing its army from Lebanon.

The statement was a response to a report in Monday's Ma'ariv saying that Sharon had rejected a Syrian proposal to resume peace talks on the eve of the American war with Iraq, believing that it was not a sincere offer.

Ma'ariv said that Maher Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad, met in Jordan two months ago with Israeli businessman Eitan Bentzur, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, and offered to reopen negotiations without preconditions - something Damascus has never offered in the past. Bentzur then reported back to Sharon, who decided not to pursue the offer, believing it was designed to improve Syria's standing with the United States, the paper said.

The Prime Minister's Office on Monday denied that any Israeli had met with Assad's brother, but said that Israeli businessmen did meet with Syrian businessmen close to Assad and received a negotiating proposal from them.

After consulting with the various intelligence services, the statement continued, the government concluded that the proposal was not serious, but was rather an attempt to use Israel to ease American pressure on Damascus.

In principle, Shalom favors giving serious consideration to reopening the Syrian channel. "I would be delighted to resume the talks, but the Syrians must come with clean hands, without preconditions and, of course, after they have disassociated themselves from terrorism," he said on Sunday. "If there is a positive approach from them, we will consider it positively."

But Sharon took a much more guarded position Monday, saying merely: "As a result of the American victory in Iraq, many nations in the region have experienced a shock and this has opened opportunities for reaching additional peace agreements."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz opposes diverting resources to the Syrian track right now, believing that since the conflict with the Palestinians is currently Israel's major problem, Jerusalem should concentrate all its efforts on making progress on this track.

Like Mofaz, Sharon dislikes the idea of trying to negotiate on two fronts simultaneously. Nevertheless, he said last week that he is willing "to talk with the Syrians without preconditions."

Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000, after then prime minister Ehud Barak agreed to return the Golan Heights, but rejected Syria's demand for a strip of coastline along the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee.