Syria proposes fresh round of peace talks with Israel

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The Independent Online

Syria has indicated that it is ready for new peace negotiations with Israel. Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN's Middle East envoy, has confirmed in a briefing to the Security Council that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, said he was ready to resume talks that broke down three years ago.

While the office of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, responded publicly that "Israel is willing to hold immediate and direct negotiations with any Arab country without prior conditions", privately Israeli government officials have reacted frostily to the Syrian overtures, suggesting that the offer of new talks is not sincere. In a sign of a slight thaw, Israeli newspapers reported yesterday that the government had ordered military intelligence to discover if Syria was sincere.

Mr Larsen told the Secu- rity Council on Thursday: "There is ... a solid basis on which to resume negotiations between Israel and Syria.

"Only last week in Damascus, President Assad of Syria personally expressed to me his readiness to resume those negotiations, based on the previously agreed terms of reference."

There is little doubt that President Assad's message has been prompted by the discomfort he is feeling from US pressure. Syria was the only one of Iraq's neighbours openly to oppose the US invasion.

With US troops in Iraq and accusations from Washington that Syria channelled military equipment to the Iraqis and helped members of Saddam's regime to flee, new peace talks with Israel would be a way to relieve some of the pressure.

Quoting an unnamed senior government source, Ha'aretz reported that Israel had dismissed Mr Assad's overtures. "If the Syrians were serious about wanting to speak to us, they know how to reach us - through the Americans," the source said. He added that Israel was not interested in throwing Mr Assad a "lifeline".

The official Israeli line is that Mr Sharon is reluctant to become embroiled in peace talks on two fronts, and believes that talks with the Palestinians are more important.