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Olmert Rules Out Peace Talks With Syria

BENJAMIN HARVEY / AP | August 21 2006

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday ruled out a resumption of negotiations with Syria at this time, saying Damascus must first end its support for militant groups.

Olmert spoke just hours after a minister in his Cabinet urged a resumption of negotiations and said Israel should give back the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

Israel accuses Syria and Iran of arming and supporting Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas who fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel in the 34-day war that ended last week. However, during the war, Israel went to great lengths to keep Syria out of the conflict, apparently to avoid opening another front or closing future peace options.

After the war, Syrian President Bashar Assad signaled he is moving closer to Iran. He delivered a hardline speech in praise of Hezbollah and warned that future Arab generations might succeed with force where peace talks have failed so far -- a reference to the Golan Heights, the plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

Inspecting rocket damage in northern Israel on Monday, Olmert said Syria is not a partner for peace at the moment.

"When Syria stops support for terror, when it stops giving missiles to terror organizations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them," Olmert said.

"We are not going into any adventure when terror is on their side," Olmert said. "We're not going into any negotiations until basic steps are taken which can be the basis for any negotiations."

The three main U.S. allies in the Arab world -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- have been pushing for a revival of negotiations because they're worried the Lebanon war has given a boost to Iran. A top Arab League official has said the Arab countries are putting together a peace plan to present to the U.N. Security Council next month.

It's not clear whether the United States would support a wider peace effort following the Lebanon war.

Israeli leaders appear divided over whether Syria could somehow be lured into the moderate Arab camp with the promise of peace talks and getting back the Golan. Last week, Defense Minister Amir Peretz became the first senior Israeli official to propose renewing contacts with Syria.

On Monday, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter also said Israel should resume the negotiations that broke down in 2000. Asked by Israel Army Radio whether Israel should surrender the territory in exchange for a peace deal, Dichter referred to treaties with Egypt and Jordan in which Israel handed over all war-won land.

"What we did with Egypt and Jordan is also legitimate in this case," Dichter said. Asked whether that meant Israel should withdraw to its international border with Syria, he said: "Yes."

However, Olmert told his Cabinet in a closed-door meeting Sunday that Israel is in no hurry to resume peace talks. Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Monday that Israel had other things on its mind right now.

"I think that at the moment, we can't take on too much," Peres told Israel Radio. "We have the burden of Lebanon and we have the negotiations with the Palestinians. I don't think a country like ours can deal with so many issues at a time."

Peres said he believes it's unlikely Assad is even contemplating a return to negotiations.

"The Syrians, if they are serious (about peace talks), should come and say `We are interested in holding negotiations,'" Peres said. "I don't see Assad doing this."

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