DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syria’s president said Tuesday that there is no “real partner” in Israel to make peace, stressing that a halt to Jewish settlements is essential to restart peace talks with the Jewish state.
Syria has said it is willing to resume indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not willing to cede the territory Syria wants. He has also refused U.S. demands to halt settlement construction in the West Bank, hampering efforts to resume peace negotiations.
“What Syria is proposing for peace is not conditions but rather they are rights that cannot be negotiated or abandoned,” Syria’s official news agency SANA quoted President Bashar Assad as saying. “The problem is that there is no real Israeli partner to make peace.”
Assad spoke during a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was in Syria as part of a regional tour to explore chances of reviving the stalled Middle East peace process.
Steinmeier went to Lebanon later on Tuesday and he had earlier visited Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Assad stressed that the lifting of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and a halt to building settlements in the West Bank are “first steps to discuss peace,” SANA reported. Syria and Israel held four rounds of indirect peace negotiations through Turkish mediators last year. But Syria suspended them in December over Israel’s military offensive against the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers in December and January.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country wanted to resume Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel before initiating direct negotiations with the Jewish state. But he questioned Israel’s willingness for peace.
“Regarding resuming direct talks (with Israel), we still believe that resuming indirect talks through Turkey is the best way to move toward direct talks that can lead to results. But beforehand we want to be sure (if) there is a political decision in Israel to achieve peace,” al-Moallem told a joint press conference with Steinmeier.
Steinmeier urged Syria to play a role in moving the Middle East peace process forward. “I appeal to Syria to make its contribution to the success of the (peace) process,” Steinmeier said. Opportunities “must be used this year, otherwise the window will close again,” he added.
Steinmeier said that there are signals from all concerned parties to move the peace process forward in “a positive atmosphere” after the Obama administration showed interest in Middle East peace. He called on Syria, which supports anti-Israel militant factions like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas, to rein in groups that try to block the peace process.
Steinmeier said he discussed with Assad the conditions for achieving peace and pushing these conditions forward. “The impressions I had in Israel is that there is readiness to advance forward in this regard (peace),” he said. “Assad heard this and reiterated that there needs to be preparation of positions for the new start.”