PARIS (AFP) – Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said Friday that he had no “Israeli partner” ready to push forward the Middle East peace process, rebuffing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of talks.
Accusing Netanyahu of not being serious about peace, Assad told reporters he was not willing to hold face-to-face negotiations with the Israeli leader and called instead for lower-level dialogue under Turkish mediation.
“If Mr Netanyahu is serious, he can send a team of experts, and we’ll send a team of experts to Turkey. Then we can really talk, if they’re interested,” he said in Paris, after talks with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Netanyahu visited Sarkozy on Wednesday, after which an Israeli official said the premier was “willing to meet the Syrian president at any time and anywhere to move on the peace negotiations on the basis of no pre-conditions.”
Syria, however, has long had one main pre-condition for talks with Israel — the return of the strategic Golan Heights, a plateau which Israeli captured in the countries’ 1967 war and unilaterally annexed in 1981.
“Today, Syria wants peace. There is a mediator, Turkey, which is ready to resume its mediation. There is also French and European support for this process,” Assad told reporters at Sarkozy’s Elysee Palace.
“What we lack is an Israeli partner who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result,” he declared.
France hopes to use its strengthening ties with Syria to push for an end to Damascus’ own dispute with Israel and to urge it to use its influence to help restart a separate peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Relations between France and Syria have been warming since Assad paid a landmark visit to Paris last year for Bastille Day celebrations and Sarkozy visited Damascus two months later in September 2008.
Hostility between Israel and Syria is one of the problems underlying all efforts to seek a broader Middle East peace settlement.
Syria has repeatedly demanded the return of the Golan, while Israel accuses Syria of backing anti-Israeli militant groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, which have offices in Damascus.
Turkish mediation between the foes broke off last year during Israel’s offensive in Gaza, closing a promising diplomatic channel, but Ankara says it is willing to resume its role overseeing telephone talks between leaders.
The editor of Syria’s ruling party newspaper Al Baath, Abdel-Latif Omran, told AFP that Syria would stick to its demand for the return of the Golan Heights but was ready to negotiate on parallel issues.
“We hope that the efforts put forward by the European Union and France will lead to true peace in the Middle East, but there is no Israeli willingness to make peace,” he alleged.
Meanwhile, France is stepping up efforts to restart the peace process between Israel and Palestinians, which is similarly stalled. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is heading to the region for talks next week.
Sarkozy outlined “important suggestions” aimed at restarting the comatose peace process during telephone talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday, according to a Palestinian aide.
A senior Palestinian official told AFP that the “suggestions” included holding a Middle East peace conference in Moscow, an idea Russia has been pushing for months.