DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syria’s president said Monday he believes direct peace talks with Israel are possible and that they will eventually take place.
The comments by Bashar Assad reflect a softer stance of the Syrian leader, who only recently rebuked Israel by claiming the Jewish state is not genuine in its professed desire for peace with its Arab neighbors.
Four rounds of indirect Syrian-Israeli talks have been held this year through Turkish mediators, though no breakthroughs were made. The talks were suspended after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would step down.
No new date has been set and Assad didn’t say Monday when the indirect talks would resume. They are not expected to go on until after February’s national elections in Israel that would determine Olmert’s successor.
Assad also said that indirect negotiations alone cannot achieve peace between the two enemies. The Syrian president spoke at a joint press conference with visiting Croatian counterpart Stipe Mesic.
“It’s natural that we would move, at a later stage, to direct negotiations. We cannot achieve peace through indirect talks only,” Assad said. He compared the peace process to the construction of a building, and said Syria and Israel are “now laying the foundations” for peace through the Turkey-mediated indirect talks. “We should first lay solid foundations and then construct the building, and not vice versa,” he said and added: “If the bases are successful, then direct negotiations will be successful.”
Assad’s comments came as Olmert was in Turkey for talks with officials there that were expected to focus among other things on the Turkish-mediated negotiations with Syria.
Olmert said last week it’s possible to negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Syria.
Syria and Israel are bitter foes. They held direct talks in the late 1990s and early 2000 but negotiations broke down over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Syria insists on the complete return of the Golan Heights, while Israel wants to keep a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee.