DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syria’s leader said he offered a proposal for peace with Israel but also refused to break off ties with Hezbollah and militant Palestinians, a key Israeli demand.
President Bashar Assad also said Thursday that indirect negotiations with Israel were on hold until that country chooses a new prime minister and that direct talks would have to wait until a new U.S. president takes office.
Assad’s comments came after meetings with France’s leader and regional mediators in talks focusing on Mideast peace and Iran’s nuclear program. France hopes that warmer relations with Syria, Iran’s ally, could help the West in its efforts to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program.
Assad said his proposal for Israel was intended to serve as a basis for direct talks. He said he would wait for a similar document laying out Israel’s positions before any face-to-face talks. So far, negotiations between the two foes have been held indirectly through Turkish mediators.
Although Assad didn’t divulge details of his proposal, the move reflected a desire to break with Syria’s past policies. The quest was given a boost by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Damascus on Wednesday and Thursday, becoming the first Western leader in several years to come to Syria.
Sarkozy has encouraged face-to-face Syria-Israel negotiations and offered to sponsor such talks in the future. The French president has been trying to forge better relations with both Syria and Libya, a longtime international pariah that has significantly improved ties with the West.
Assad and Sarkozy were joined Thursday in a four-way summit by Turkey’s prime minister and the leader of Qatar, a key broker in inter-Arab disputes, to discuss Mideast stability and peace.
Washington made clear it expects more from Syria before any warming of ties. “Overall what we’d like to see out of Syria is for it to play a much more productive role in the region. It hasn’t until now. We’d like to see it not meddle in the affairs of the sovereign government of Lebanon,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. He said the U.S. “would like to see” Syria reach a peace with Israel and establish diplomatic relations.
In an interview with French television, Assad ruled out any recognition of Israel before a peace deal. But “when there is a peace accord, of course there will be reciprocal recognition. This is natural,” he said. Syria and Israel have held four rounds of indirect talks through Turkish mediation in the last year.
Assad said at the summit that in the peace proposal, given to Turkish mediators, Syria outlined six points on the issue of the “withdrawal line” a reference to the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This has been a major sticking point in the previous talks, causing the collapse of U.S.-brokered direct negotiations in 2000. Syria has long demanded the complete return of the heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel has sought to keep a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee.
Assad did not say whether the six points changed the demand for a full withdrawal. Assad said a fifth planned round of indirect talks with Israel had been postponed until after Israeli leadership elections and that the future of negotiations rested on whether a few prime minister in Israel will be committed to pursuing peace with Syria.
Any direct talks would also have to wait until a new American administration is in place, Assad added, acknowledging the importance of strong U.S. backing for such an effort.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the target of several corruption investigations, has announced he will step down after his party chooses a new leader this month. That has left peace prospects with both Syria and the Palestinians uncertain.
“We want the support of all states, basically France, Qatar and Turkey in order to be assured that the next (Israeli) prime minister will follow the same direction Olmert had followed through his readiness for complete withdrawal from the occupied territories in order for peace to be achieved,” he said.
In Israel, an official said contacts were already being made to set up more talks. He said Israel has a “genuine intention to reach an agreement.” The official declined to be identified because the diplomatic efforts are ongoing. Israeli officials have insisted that Syria also must end its support for militant groups opposed to Israel, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
But Assad on Thursday sought to reassure the groups that he would continue to back what he described as the “resistance” against Israeli occupation. “We don’t see any interest in abandoning the resistance,” he told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television. “Our position has always been clear. Our position toward the resistance against any occupation in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine is firm and has not changed.”