Olmert Denies TV Report of Missive From Syria's Assad

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office yesterday denied reports broadcast by Al Arabiya television that Syrian President Bashar Assad had sent a secret message to Israel through German intermediaries.

According to Al Arabiya, Assad asked Olmert to embark on unconditional negotiations with Syria, and promised that in return for the opening of negotiations, he would curtail the freedoms of Damascus-based Hamas leaders and their influence on events in the territories. The Syrian president also promised to prevent the flow of arms to Hezbollah, Al Arabiya said.

Assad, who is on an official visit to Russia, also denied the reports yesterday. "There is no offer - nothing," he said.

However, he did say that Syria would be willing to have a direct dialogue with the United States. "We are ready for dialogue, but you must distinguish between dialogue and the issuing of orders," Assad said.

The Al Arabiya report maintained that the U.S. was aware of the content of the relayed message and had dispatched Elliott Abrams, who is President George Bush's deputy national security adviser, to Israel to discuss the development.

News of the Al Arabiya report elicited mixed responses from the Knesset. On the right, the prevailing attitude was that this was merely a media spin, while on the left, there were calls for Olmert to accept Assad's invitation.

Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said that Israel's response to Assad should include three criteria: First, Israel will not give up the Golan Heights, and unless Syria accepts this, there is no point in talks. Second, Syria must end its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups as a precondition for talks. And third, Israel must ensure that holding talks with Syria will not undermine its relationship with the United States.

National Religious Party Chairman Zevulun Orlev said sarcastically that Syria has learned how to make sophisticated headlines, and not just sophisticated missiles. He accused the Syrians of making hollow gestures of peace while engaging in terrorism.

MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said that the denial by the Prime Minister's Office proves that Assad's "peace party" is a tragedy in a comic mask.

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) called on Olmert to announce whether or not he received a message from the Syrian leader calling for negotiations. She also said that the opportunity for talks with Syria should not be missed.

Her party colleague, MK Ran Cohen, called on Syria to prove its seriousness by releasing the remains of Eli Cohen for burial in Israel. However, he added, Israel must accept Syria's calls for peace.