PM: Assad Wants Talks, but Only With Bush; Syria Willing to Rethink Iran Ties, UN Says

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met yesterday in Tel Aviv with ambassadors of European Union countries to Israel, a gathering that in great part focused on Syria and the possibility of a renewal of peace talks.

Olmert acknowledged that the Syrian talks is an issue that the ambassadors are very interested to discuss, and stressed that he did not believe there was a threat of war.

Olmert said: "Syria does not want war and neither does Israel, but this does not mean that the situation will turn into negotiations. Assad says he wants negotiations, but in practice he means negotiations with the United States and [President George] Bush and not with Israel," the prime minister noted.

One of the ambassadors told Olmert that while Israel is opposed to Syrian preconditions to negotiations, it did not hesitate to do the same with the Palestinians, such as presenting the right of return of Palestinian refugees as a "red line" for Israel.

"There is a difference between preconditions and early positions," Olmert said. "We say to the Palestinians what our position is on the issue of the right of return, but this does not mean that the matter cannot be raised in negotiations. For their part, the Syrians want entire subjects determined before the negotiations."

Also yesterday, a United Nations representative, Michael Williams, told Reuters that during his visit to Damascus several weeks ago, he had heard encouraging messages from senior Syrian officials.

According to Williams, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East, Syrian officials expressed their willingness to alter their ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, if there is progress in the peace process with Israel.

Williams said that he related his "impressions" from his talks in Syria to Olmert and other Israeli officials.

"The Syrian side has basically said, 'Look the work is done. It's here in the drawer. The big issues like water, security, access were all looked at then, were pretty much thrashed out. So if negotiations were resumed, then maybe we could make real progress,'" Williams told Reuters.

However, the UN diplomat noted, there are difficulties. "It is difficult. There's an awkwardness on both sides which stems from the history of their relationship over 60 years. It's very difficult to remove the suspicions and antipathies that have resulted from that," Williams said.

The Prime Minister's Bureau issued a statement in response to Williams' interview, stating that "President [Bashar] Assad knows that Israel is offering him direct negotiations, that we believe it is best done secretly. The prime minister has said this in an interview this week to Al-Arabiya [news network]. We are still waiting for a response or comment from Syria.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, in an interview that was published yesterday, that "Syria is a country that continues to play a dangerous game in the region, supports Hezbollah, refuses to recognize Lebanon's independence and continues to pose a threat."

Also yesterday, it became public that Prime Minister Olmert made a secret visit to Jordan on Wednesday, where he met with King Abdullah. The Prime Minister's Bureau refused to comment on the meeting, news of which was first broken on Channel Two.

Prior to his trip to Jordan, Olmert told ministers in his government that the meeting would focus on furthering relations between the two countries following the transfer of Jordanian prisoners held in Israel to the Hashemite Kingdom.

The prime minister said he would also discuss with King Abdullah the new situation that has emerged in the region following the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip.

Also yesterday, it was announced that the scheduled visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region next week was canceled. American sources said the last-minute decision to cancel the visit was made because of the efforts in Congress to pass legislation that will limit the American presence in Iraq.

At a lengthy press conference, President George W. Bush, said that Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would travel to the Middle East in early August.