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Shifting Gears, Syria Offers To Reopen Negotiations With Israel

After a barrage of American criticism for its disruptive role in Iraq and the Middle East, and with a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell looming on the horizon, Syria has swiftly shifted gears in recent weeks, moving from calls to resist the American invasion of Iraq to sudden peace overtures to Israel.

Syria’s newest gesture was brought to Israel this week by Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who told reporters in Jerusalem that Syrian President Bashar Assad had given him a message for Prime Minister Sharon offering to reopen the negotiations.

“Assad asked me to clarify to Prime Minister Sharon that he is willing to talk with him on all outstanding issues and to renew negotiations for peace,” Lantos told Sharon in a private meeting, Israeli media reported.

Lantos handed over the message in a private session with Sharon. Facing reporters together before entering their meeting, Sharon told Lantos that Israel was ready for “unconditional negotiations” with Syria.

However, as Sharon’s aides pointedly noted afterward, “without conditions” means Israel opposes resuming negotiations with Syria at the point where they ended. Syria has said in the past that it wants to restart talks from the point where they ended, taking all past Israeli concessions as givens before the new talks start.

Israeli officials were quoted as saying they believed the Syrian move was a trick to take some American heat off the Damascus regime. The Bush administration has directed a barrage of harsh rhetoric toward Damascus since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, accusing it of hosting members of the deposed Iraqi regime and pursuing chemical weapons. It has also revived older accusations, including Syria’s sheltering of terrorist groups and its continuing occupation of Lebanon. Syria has dismissed all the charges.

The last Israeli-Syrian peace talks collapsed in 1999 with the two sides close to agreement on Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The talks foundered on an insistence by Syria’s then-ruler Hafez Assad on securing a foothold on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, refused to let Syrian troops come down to the water’s edge.

Lantos, 75, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, had met several times over the years with Hafez Assad, but this was his first meeting with the younger Assad. The ranking Democrat on the House international relations committee, Lantos is a co-sponsor of the proposed Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which would give the president the authority to impose sanctions on Syria if it does not meet certain conditions. The demands include stopping its sponsorship of terrorism, ending its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ending its occupation of Lebanon. The bill was introduced earlier this month and a companion bill is to be introduced in the Senate soon.

Lantos briefed President Bush Tuesday on his talks with Assad.

While he characterized Syria’s actions leading up to and during the war in Iraq as “atrocious” and “appalling,” Lantos told reporters in Israel that Damascus now has the choice between “pursuing this counterproductive and negative policy or taking advantage of the cataclysmic change in the region and moving in a new direction.”

In order to move in this new direction, Lantos said he told Assad that the administration expects Syria to close all the terrorist organization offices currently operating in Damascus; terminate all military assistance to Hezbollah, both directly and by allowing transit of Iranian arms; evacuate Syrian forces from Lebanon, and release academics, journalists, and members of the Syrian parliament currently in prison, as well as Israeli POWs.

While the bellicose American rhetoric against Damascus has been replaced during the last week by cautious acknowledgment of Syrian efforts to seal its border with Iraq, Israeli officials are still trying to push for further action.

On Monday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, called for a “regime change” in both Syria and Iran at a conference of the Anti-Defamation League. He argued that while the American invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam helped create great opportunities for Israel, it was “not enough.”

“It has to follow through,” he told the audience. “We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran… The important thing is to show [international] political unity and this is the key element to pressure the Iranians into a regime change, and the same case is with the Syrians,” Ayalon said.

While he brushed aside the possibility of military action, Ayalon advocated using a mix of diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and “psychological pressure” to ignite changes in those two countries.

Regarding Iran, Ayalon stressed the need to delegitimize its regime by applying political pressure and effective economic sanctions.

In a clear allusion to European countries that have reached out to Tehran in recent days, he said governments should not allow visits by Iranian leaders and foreign leaders should not visit Iran.

Before the war in Iraq, Israel’s security establishment had quietly issued repeated warnings that Iran represents a larger danger than Iraq and could have a nuclear device by 2005. Israelis regard this view as vindicated by recent reports that Tehran’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously believed, and Israel recently has been pressing the Bush administration to deal firmly with Iran.

Still, while some hawks have pushed for military action against Iran and contingency plans have been drawn at the Pentagon to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, the administration’s policy has been to encourage the Iranian people to free themselves from the ruling mullahs.

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