DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cast doubt on Saturday on reaching Middle East peace under what he termed as an “extreme” Israeli government but did not rule out resuming talks with the Jewish state.
“The failure of the peace process so far has clearly shown that Israel is the obstacle… How can a state that was founded on illegal occupation and continues to murder the original inhabitants work toward peace?” Assad said. “How can a country that has chosen the most extreme government in its history be a partner for peace?” he added.
Assad, who was addressing a foreign ministers meeting of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, was referring to the Israeli government of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which took office two months ago.
“We the Arab nations, and especially Syria will not change our view about peace as a strategic goal, including the full return of occupied lands,” Assad said in the Syrian capital.
Syria, which along with Iran supports the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, held four rounds of Turkish mediated indirect talks with Israel in 2008 that were formally suspended during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December.
Damascus was among the most vocal critics of the invasion, which enhanced its position as a self declared champion of Arab rights, to the ire of the U.S. backed governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials told their Syrian counterparts this month that President Barack Obama, who has placed Middle East peace high on his agenda, was committed to seeking a deal between Syria and Israel, in contrast to a less enthusiastic position by his predecessor George W. Bush.
Netanyahu offered after meeting Obama on Wednesday to restart the talks with Syria without conditions. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said any resumption would be useless without an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied for the last 42 years.