JERUSALEM, (AP) – A Cabinet minister said Friday that Israel was trying to bring Syria back to the negotiating table eight years after talks between the two countries broke down.
The disclosure of Israeli efforts to engage Syria in negotiations comes at a time when Israeli attempts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians are making no visible progress despite intense U.S. involvement.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected in the region this weekend to try to narrow the differences between the two sides.
Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer spoke about the talks with Syria just days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted that Israel might be holding — or planning to hold — secret talks with its northern neighbor.
“All efforts are being made to bring Syria to the negotiating table” in order to “sign a peace treaty,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio, without elaborating.
“We know exactly what the price would be,” he added — namely, Israel’s return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
He would not disclose what results there have been, if any, from Israel’s efforts to resume dialogue with the Syrians.
Israel-Syria peace talks — a centerpiece of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s political agenda — broke down in 2000 with Syria rejecting Israel’s offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and insisting that Israel pull back to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that Barak, now defense minister, was a partner to the current efforts to renew talks with Damascus.
On Wednesday, Olmert told foreign journalists that Israel favors face-to-face talks with Syria that could result in a peace treaty, adding: “That doesn’t mean that when we sit together you have to see us,” he said, an apparent reference to the possibility of secret contacts.
A week earlier, Olmert told a joint meeting of the Israeli and German Cabinets that he was ready to restart negotiations with Syria if Damascus would end its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups. All are backed by Iran and opposed to Israel’s existence.
Since Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, both Israel and Syria have declared their readiness to renew negotiations and exchanged messages through third party emissaries, but there has been no sign of movement.
Peace talks with the Palestinians, by contrast, were relaunched with great fanfare at a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November, where Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to try to reach a peace accord this year. On Wednesday, Olmert said he did not believe it would be possible to sign and implement a comprehensive peace treaty by the end of the year.
Peace efforts have been compromised by an upsurge in Israeli fighting with Islamic Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip and continued Israeli construction in areas Palestinians claim for a future state have compromised peace efforts.
Palestinians also charge that Israel is undermining Abbas in his power struggle by failing to remove restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, which he controls. Israel contends the restrictions, which are stifling the war-battered Palestinian economy, are necessary to ensure its security.
Rice is due in the region Saturday, just three weeks after her last visit, to try to bridge some of the gaps.
Usually, she meets with the two sides separately, but in a possible sign of the urgency assigned to the visit, she is to meet together with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Barak. Fayyad has been overseeing the efforts to reinvigorate the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian crackdown on militant groups
The Haaretz newspaper reported that Rice also planned to hold a three-way meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is Israel’s lead negotiator in talks with the Palestinians, and the chief Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia.
Rice comes amid stepped-up American efforts to wrest significant progress from peacemaking as U.S. President George W. Bush’s tenure draws to its January 2009 end.
On Thursday, the White House disclosed that Bush has invited Abbas to Washington in an effort to jump-start Mideast peace talks. The visit is expected in early May.
Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to the region last week, and Bush is to visit in May on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
In a related development, a Palestinian militant was killed and two were injured in a clash with Israeli forces on a raid in the southern Gaza Strip Friday, the military said. Palestinian medics confirmed one man was killed. Hamas claimed the dead man as a member, but local residents said he was not a fighter.