Olmert to Bashar: Let's talk

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview granted to the Dubai-based satellite television channel Al-Arabiya, spoke directly to Syrian President Bashar Assad, telling him that he is ready to meet face to face, and without the United States' intercession.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Fri 13 Jul 2007, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Olmert told Assad, "Come to Jerusalem to talk." Speaking in Hebrew, the Israeli prime minister said: "Bashar Assad, you know ... You know I am ready to hold direct negotiations with you and you also know that it's you who insists on speaking to the Americans. The American president says: I don't want to stand between Bashar Assad and Ehud Olmert. If you want to talk, sit down and talk.

The Israeli prime minister added: "Bashar Assad doesn't want to sit with me, he wants to sit with the Americans, but the Americans don't want to sit with him. I am willing to meet him if he's willing to meet me. If that happens, we will discuss peace, not war. I don't want to fight the Syrians."

This invitation to peace from Olmert comes after days of tension has both sides began beefing up their military positions on the Golan Heights.

During Olmert's visit to Washington a few weeks ago President George W Bush was asked if he would consider mediating between Syria and Israel in an effort to help get the stalled peace talks back on track. Bush replied that Olmert "is plenty capable" of initiating such talks without US help. The Bush administration's policy regarding Syria has been mostly to ignore it. The administration accuses Syria of interference in Lebanon and Iraq and of supporting terrorist groups.

When asked by the interviewer where he would hold eventual talks with Assad, Olmert replied, "any place he [Assad] would agree to meet."

President Assad is expected to deliver an important speech on July 17, the official date of his second seven-year term in office. SyriaComment.com, one of the most informed Internet blog sites devoted to covering Syrian affairs says "there are speculations that a new government will be announced to be led by a newly appointed prime minister."

That would be the opportune time for Assad to take Olmert at his word and call for a meeting. But analysts say Damascus is adamant on having the US partake in the negotiations. An official close to the Syrian president said is quoted by Haaretz as saying that without the US there will be no negotiations.

Israel is somewhat reluctant to enter into talks with Syria while the US stands on the sidelines, most likely fearful that such a move would upset Washington, Israel's staunchest ally.

But Israel has far greater worries than upsetting the president of the United States. Of far greater concern to Prime Minister Olmert, according to Maj-Gen (ret) Uri Sagi who was quoted by the Haaretz newspaper in an interview this week, is "President George W Bush's obsession with bringing down the regime in Damascus."

Although relations between Syria and Israel are less than cold, Israel is quite content with the status quo. With the current regime in Damascus Israeli leadership knows who they are dealing with, where they live, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what to expect from them. However, should there be an unexpected change of regime in Damascus no one seems to have a clear idea as to who would emerge the victor. Israel would much rather continue to deal with the Syrians, rather than have to deal with an unknown entity, such as offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood or Al-Qaeda sympathisers.

The very last thing Israel wants at this juncture is to have a chaotic situation, compatible to what is happening in Iraq being mirrored in Syria, and so close to its borders. But Syria's president is unlikely to emulate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic voyage to Israel in quest of peace and drop in on the Israeli prime minister in Jerusalem. Then again, miracles do happen in the Promised Land.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. He may be contacted at Claude@upi.com.

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