Syrian Official in Madrid Calls for Fresh Negotiations With Israel

Assad's top legal advisor says lack of peace harming regional stability; Israeli officials also at conference.

MADRID - A high-level Syrian official attending a conference in Madrid along with Israeli lawmakers on Thursday called on Israel and the United States to renew talks on an agreement that would see Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to the pre-1967 borders, in return for comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

The conference, which commemorates the 15-year anniversary of the historic 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, began Thursday morning. The participation of Israeli and Syrian representatives at a dinner Wednesday to inaugurate the conference marked the first time in seven years that officials from the two countries sat together at the same table.

Riad Daoudi, the top legal adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad and to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus, said that Assad is sticking to the position taken by his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, namely that peace is a Syrian strategic goal which must be worked toward without hesitation.

A lack of peace, Daoudi said, has an adverse effect on Middle East stability. He said that now was the time to set in motion fresh negotiations, something he said was a matter of urgency for Syria and for the entire region.

Daoudi is accompanied by Damascus' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Bushra Kanafani. The Israeli delegation is comprised of Knesset members and former ministers.

He said that Israel's intentions were unclear and blamed it for the failure of bilateral peace talks, particularly in 1996, when Shimon Peres was prime minister, and in 2000, when Ehud Barak led the government, and for the subsequent refusals to renew talks.

Daoudi also accused the U.S. of taking peace off its agenda in favor of force, which he said went against the interests of the regional states.

He called on Europe to take a more active role in renewing talks, and to take an official role in the Madrid conference in order to revive negotiations through all channels.

No Israeli press

The Syrian delegation has refused to meet with Israeli reporters, however, saying they were instructed by Damascus to do so, as well as to avoid making any public statements apart from what is discussed at the conference.

The participation of the two Syrian officials was made possible following an invitation of Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, Miguel Moratinos, and his Swedish, Norwegian and Danish counterparts, under whose aegis the event is taking place.

The Syrian decision to participate in the gathering received a great deal of attention in the Arab media and has been interpreted as the first step in efforts to resume the peace talks with Israel.

The Israeli delegation includes MKs Israel Hasson (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Colette Avital, former Likud ministers Dan Meridor and Roni Milo, as well as former Labor ministers Dalia Rabin, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Moshe Shahal and Ophir Pines-Paz.

Even though the United States boycotts Syria, retired senior American diplomats are participating in the gathering, including Dan Kurtzer and Samuel Lewis, who were ambassadors to Israel.

The European Union is represented by Javier Solana and the former Spanish prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, who hosted the summit in 1991, will also be in attendance. The Arab League chief and former Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, is also present.