Assad Ignored Israeli Message; PM's Aides Divided Over Whether Syria Wants Talks

The U.S. administration opposes a renewal of Israeli-Syrian negotiations and believes efforts should be focused on the Palestinian track, Tom Casey, State Department deputy spokesman, told a media briefing on Friday.

A source in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bureau said the Israel-Syrian track was not expected to come up at next week's meeting between Olmert and President George W. Bush.

"It's up to Israel to determine how it's going to conduct its diplomatic relations with Syria or with any other country. We would certainly note that with respect to Syria, Syria has not to date taken any of the kind of positive steps that we would like to see happen with respect to Lebanon, with respect to its support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, with regard to the need to police its borders with Iraq to prevent foreign fighters from moving across. And certainly, we think that would be something that Israel would like to consider," Casey said.

He also said that, "Ultimately, in addition to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and a two-state solution, there needs to be a broader regional settlement with all of Israel's neighbors, and that includes Syria. But I think for us, certainly, discussions with Syria wouldn't be a substitute for what we consider to be the most important focus, which is furthering the cause of peace and furthering the development of a two-state solution with Israel and the Palestinians"

Casey's comments came after Yedioth Ahronoth reported Friday that Olmert told Bush during an Independence Day phone call on April 24 that he had decided to look into the possibility of renewing talks with Syria, after realizing the chances for a breakthrough with the Palestinians was nil. The report said Bush agreed with Olmert's assessment and gave him the go-ahead.

Olmert's bureau yesterday said "Syria was not mentioned in the conversation between Bush and Olmert on Independence Day nor in any other conversation." A source said the Americans have generally been informed that Olmert was checking into the Syrian track.

It is not known whether the White House mentioned anything to Israel about the report on the statements attributed to Bush, which are ostensibly in opposition to the official American position.

Olmert transmitted a message through a Turkish third party and another individual in April to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in which he asked if Syria would agree to end its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and extremist Palestinian organizations in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The source said Assad's lack of response showed Syria was not serious, which confirms the evaluation of Mossad head Meir Dagan.

The source said it was the prime minister's duty, after being faced with two conflicting intelligence assessments, of the Mossad and Military Intelligence, to check them through accepted channels vis-a-vis the Syrians, so as to determine whether renewed negotiations with Syria can serve Israel's interests.

Yoav Stern contributed to this report.