President snubs Sharon with Syrian talks offer

Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Syrian leader Syrian Bashar Assad to peace talks today – an overture that put him at odds with prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav invited Syrian leader Syrian Bashar Assad to peace talks today – an overture that put him at odds with prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon said yesterday such talks could begin only after Syria dismantles the militant groups Israel says it controls.

Syria brushed off the offer, with one official calling it ”evasive and problematic.”

As Israel’s ceremonial leader, Katsav has limited political influence. But his invitation came amid a growing debate among Israeli leaders about how to respond to recent indications that Syria, one of Israel’s most intractable foes, is ready to resume peace talks.

Last month, President Assad said he was ready to resume negotiations with Israel where they broke off in 2000 – with Israel offering to return nearly all the Golan Heights captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Syria has repeated the offer several times since then.

Israeli officials have grown divided by the Syrian gestures. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has so far been sceptical of Syria’s motives, saying Assad may be trying to placate the United States in the wake of the American war in neighbouring Iraq. He also says any peace talks would have to start from scratch.

Sharon said on Sunday that Israel would restart negotiations with Syria only after Syria stopped aiding militant groups that continue to attack Israel. The main Palestinian militant groups, as well as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, all operate on Syrian territory.

But other officials, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said the Syrian offer should be considered regardless of Syria’s motives – an argument echoed by Katsav today.

“I’m the president of Israel and I have the authority to invite foreign presidents to come to Israel,” Katsav said. “I invite the president of Syria to come to Jerusalem to meet with the country’s leaders and conduct serious negotiations, if that is his wish.”

“There is no doubt that President Assad is in severe trouble, and his intentions aren’t pure,” Katsav said, ”but we must seriously examine his proposal to renew negotiations with Israel in a direct meeting and not through the media.”

In Damascus, Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Syrian parliament, dismissed Katsav’s invitation, but repeated Syria’s call for restarting talks.

“Israel is fully aware that such proposals are evasive and problematic and could never lead to the hoped-for target, which is to restart negotiations from the point they had last reached,” Haddad said.

On Sunday, Shalom revealed that Israel had secret contacts with Syria several months ago – well before the recent Syrian overture – but they broke down after word of the meetings leaked out.

Still technically at war with Israel, Syria demands the return of all the Golan as part of any potential deal.

Israel annexed the 620-square-mile Golan in 1981, though its sovereignty there is not internationally recognised. Its current population of about 35,000 is roughly evenly divided between Israelis and its original Druse Arab residents.

Meanwhile a Sharon confidant said Israel could begin withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in about six months.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert’s remarks marked the first time an Israeli official has mentioned a time for a possible unilateral withdrawal. Sharon has said he will carry out the plan, including removing some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, if efforts to reach a peace deal fail.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Israel may be able to impose a boundary, but “will not have a partner on the Palestinian side.” Sharon has suggested the frontier created by a unilateral pullback could be part of a long-term interim period, until the time is ready for talks on a final peace deal.

Erekat said the Palestinians remain committed to a two-state solution – with a future Palestine made up of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war – but that partition may become impossible if Sharon forges ahead with his plan. Israeli peace activists have warned that in a bi-national state, Arabs would eventually outnumber Jews because of higher birthrates.

Olmert, whose comments are often seen as trial balloons for the prime minister, told The Jerusalem Post that Israel could begin taking unilateral steps in as little as six months.

“In my estimation, by the month of the June, our preparations for major unilateral moves will be complete ... and this plan, including withdrawal from certain settlements, will begin to be implemented in the second half of this year,” Olmert said.

Sharon formally unveiled his go-it-alone plan last month. He has not released details, but said the Palestinians would receive far less territory than in a negotiated settlement.

About 230,000 settlers live in 150 settlements, and Sharon reportedly would dismantle 17 isolated settlements as part of his plan.

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