Assad, in Paris: Israel Doesn't Want Peace With Syria

In Paris, Assad says ready to renew indirect peace negotiations, but adds that there is no partner in Israel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Friday questioned Israel's will to restart peace talks and suggested that a summit meeting between the two enemy states would be useless.

Assad welcomed renewed indirect discussions mediated by Turkey, but appeared to dismiss suggestions of a direct meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"What would we talk about, the menu or the return of land?" Assad told reporters after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Me, I say we would talk about returning land, and for this subject there is a framework, mechanisms and specialized negotiators to handle this," he said. "It is neither me nor Mr. Netanyahu."

Assad's visit to Paris came two days after that of Netanyahu, who said he was ready to meet the Syrian president anywhere, at any moment, but without pre-established conditions, to relaunch talks over the Israeli-Syrian dimension of the broader Mideast peace process.

"If Mr. Netanyahu is serious, he can send his teams of experts, we will send our teams of experts to Turkey. They can then talk, if they are really interested in peace," Assad said.

Turkey has mediated talks between Israel and Syria, but they broke off after Israel's winter offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Assad reiterated his complaint that Israel is not fully committed to talks mediated by Turkey. He said the mediator and Syria are ready but what is missing is an Israeli partner ready to move forward and "ready to reach a result."

In addition to Middle East peace, Sarkozy and Assad discussed Iran's contested nuclear program. Damascus is a friend of Tehran. Strengthening bilateral ties between Syria and France also was discussed on Assad's latest visit.

Assad welcomed French help in the eventual Israeli-Syrian discussions, but only as a supporting player to Turkey, by encouraging Israel to return to talks with Syria.

Assad to Obama: Draw up Israel-Syria peace plan

In an interview with French daily Le Figaro published on Friday, meanwhile, Assad said U.S. President Barack Obama should come up with a firm plan of action to renew peace talks between Syria and Israel.

He said the dialogue initiated by Obama's administration had not gone "beyond an exchange of views."

"There has not been an executive plan," he said.

Assad is due to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday, hot on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was in Paris earlier this week.

While Netanyahu said he was ready to start peace negotiations with Assad immediately, the Syrian leader accused Israel of not truly wanting to relaunch talks.

"But the weak point is the American sponsor [of peace talks]," Assad told Le Figaro.

"What Obama said about peace was a good thing. We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what's the action plan? The sponsor has to draw up an action plan," he said.

Assad said that while relations with the United States had improved, issues such as continued U.S. sanctions against Syria were hindering any joint work towards peace in the Middle East.

Asked about Israel's complaint to the United Nations earlier this month about what it said was an Iranian attempt to supply weapons by ship to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Assad accused Israel of lying.

"What proof is there that the arms were for Hezbollah or someone else?" he said, adding that a sovereign state had the right to buy arms. He said Israel's seizure of the ship amounted to "an act of piracy in the middle of the Mediterranean."

Peace talks between Israel and Syria faltered in 2000 over the demand by Damascus for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.

Turkey later mediated a limited series of contacts between the two countries, which failed to result in any formal negotiations. Israel accuses Syria of helping to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, its militant enemies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Sarkozy to tell Assad: Israel wants peace talks

French President Sarkozy is expected to deliver a message from Netanyahu to Assad during the latter's visit to Paris on Friday, relaying Israel's desires to renew peace negotiations immediately without preconditions.

According to the pan-Arab satellite television station Al Arabiya, Netanyahu has expressed willingness to withdraw from the Golan to the borders of June 4, 1967. Netanyahu also reportedly stressed that he is interested in a meeting with Assad, without preconditions.

The Prime Minister's Bureau on Thursday denied reports that Netanyahu had relayed a message to Assad. However, political sources in Jerusalem said that Netanyahu is also examining the possibility that France will replace Turkey as a mediator between Israel and Syria.

In recent days the Syrian president has made a number of declarations on peace with Israel. Earlier this week he warned that if negotiations fail this would lead to "resistance" as an alternative.

Speaking at the forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, Assad explained that "resistance to occupation is a national obligation," calling it "a moral obligation and legitimate, and something to be proud of."

However, Assad also said that resistance "does not contradict his permanent wish to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of the return of occupied territory."

On Wednesday, Assad said he does not propose any preconditions for negotiations with Israel. "Resistance is the reality of our policy in the past and in the future. We have no preconditions for peace, but we cannot ignore our rights," he said.

Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi reiterated in recent weeks his support for the resumption of peace talks with Syria. "We should not be disheartened by Assad," he said during private conversations. The defense establishment has been steadily in favor of resuming talks with Syria. A source present in meetings where Ashkenazi spoke said that the chief of staff explained that "Israel has a strategic interest in disassociating Syria from the extremist axis that Iran is leading."

"Syria is not lost," Ashkenazi declared. "Assad is western educated and is not a religious man. He can still join a moderate grouping."

The issue of talks with Syria is one of the few things on which Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see eye to eye. Barak recently said in Tel Aviv that "we should not belittle the signals of peace coming from Syria."