Peres: Syria, Lebanon Must Choose Between Iran's Ambitions and Peace

In ceremony commemorating Joseph Trumpeldor, President discloses that Syria's former leader Hafez Assad agreed in principle to a meeting, refusing, however, to set a date

President Shimon Peres said Thursday that in 1996 he agreed to meet with former Syrian President Hafez Assad to negotiate a peace deal between the two countries but the Syrian leader refused to set a date for the meeting. 

Peres added that Syria and Lebanon must choose between Iranian ambitions and a peaceful Middle East.

President Shimon Peres - AP - Feb. 21, 2011

Speaking during an official ceremony commemorating fallen pre-state leader Joseph Trumpeldor, Peres said that in 1996, "following the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, the Americans communicated a message from Assad senior, in which he expressed his desire to renew peace efforts."

"I answered that I was willing to negotiate," Peres said, reminding Assad of the fact that "Israel was months away from an election. The agreement would have to be reached before the elections."

The president said that he then offered Assad to meet "in person in order to start the process. Assad senior said that he was willing to meet, but refused to set a date. That refusal stands to this day."

Addressing Israel's attitude toward peace talks with current Syrian President Bashar Assad, Peres said that "when and if President Assad decides determinedly to advance toward peace, he will find a responsible partner in Israel."

"The north, headed by Syria, needs to decide which direction to take: toward Iran's enriched uranium or the iPhones of its younger generation," the president said, adding that Israel wanted nothing of both Syria of Lebanon but "true peace, not threats nor incitement."

Peres called out to both Syria and Lebanon, saying: "I say to the Syrian president, choose a path. If you choose peace, we are partners. I say to Lebanon's citizens to decide your future. Be a victim of Iranian ambition, with Hezbollah as its agent, or return to be free sons in the new world."

"We are not your enemies, the land of the cedars and the olive trees of Israel were great neighbors and they are able to grow together," Peres said, adding that Israel "would rather enhance our crops than expand our territory. We want a Middle East of peace, of progress, of freedom, of each people and its flag, with all peoples centered on a flag of peace," Peres said.

"Israel has proven that it can withstand war and seek peace as well. It has paid the price of war as well as the price of peace, and it prefers peace," the president added.

The president said that now "an opportunity for peace has been created," urging Israel's neighbors to the north not to "return to bombs and rockets. It is better to cultivate the wonderful fruits of the north and establish an industry of peace instilled in science and technology."