DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Russia is preparing to host a Middle East peace conference this year that will try to relaunch talks between Israel and Syria about the occupied Golan Heights, Russian officials said in Syria on Thursday.
“We have not issued invitations but we’re working out how to incorporate different suggestions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting President Bashar al-Assad. He told reporters the conference would be a follow-up to a U.S.-hosted meeting in Annapolis in November that resumed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian administration, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
Lavrov had announced plans to host the next Middle East peace conference after the Annapolis talks. He said on Thursday that everyone in Annapolis had agreed to the Moscow conference.
Russia’s foreign minister also met members of the exiled leadership of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Damascus before flying to Israel.
Sergei Kiprichenko, Russia’s ambassador to Syria, said Lavrov’s meetings in Israel would try to nail down a more specific date for the conference. “We are definitely talking about holding it this year. The Israeli-Syrian peace track is guaranteed to be on the agenda. Syria is very interested and is making efforts for the conference to succeed,” he said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria would attend the Moscow meeting, although Israeli strikes against Gaza made it difficult for peace talks with Israel to resume. “Syria cannot be absent from a major meeting that would discuss the Golan. But it does not make sense to restart the talks with Israeli massacres taking place in Gaza. An atmosphere has to be created first,” Moualem said.
Israel says its attacks on Gaza are in response to rocket fire from the coastal strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
Syria agreed to attend the Annapolis conference only after a session devoted to the Syrian-Israeli peace track was included. No direct talks between the two countries took place at the meeting.
Peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the extent of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a plateau overlooking Damascus that Israel occupied in 1967.
Tension between Syria and Israel have risen since then, with Syria dismissing Israeli demands to abandon support for Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006. Damascus also wants an Israeli commitment to withdraw fully from the Golan.
Israeli planes raided a military installation in Syria in September. The target was described by a number of Western analysts as a nuclear facility. Syria said the complex was a conventional military building under construction.
Diplomats in Damascus said Israel and Syria have since exchanged messages, mainly through Turkey, which have not advanced prospects for resuming peace talks. Diplomats said one of the messages was a warning from Israel that it would strike Syria again if Hezbollah retaliated for the killing of a Hezbollah commander in Damascus by launching rocket salvos on the Jewish state.
Hezbollah blamed Israel for the February assassination in Damascus of its top military operative Imad Moughniyah. Israel denied the accusation and Syria has kept a low profile about the issue.
Moscow was Syria’s strongest backer in its struggle with Israel during the Communist era, but Russia has more recently been improving ties with Israel. Russia advised Syria not seek action against Israel at the United Nations Security Council after the Israeli raid on its territory.