Israel Split as Syria Sees No Peace Talks Soon

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Sunday insisted on the return of the Golan Heights but said he could not foresee peace talks with Israel anytime soon as Israel’s foreign minister said that he could not see Syria as "a real partner" in any type of agreement.

In an interview with the Austrian Die Presse daily published Sunday, ahead of a visit to Austria, Assad said that "what counts in the end, is that there is occupied territory that must be returned to Syria, and then we can talk about peace."

Assad’s comments came as a split appeared Sunday within the Israeli government of hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu on possible peace negotiations with Syria.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel had an interest in holding talks with Damascus, in an apparent rebuke to comments made by firebrand Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in a newspaper interview Saturday in which he said that he could not see Syria as "a real partner for any type of agreement."

Lieberman then said Sunday that he would support talks without preconditions.
The Golan Issue

Assad arrived in Vienna Sunday for a two-day working visit, during which he will meet his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer to discuss bilateral economic and cultural issues as well the political challenges in the Middle East and Syria’s role in the region.

"We do not make a peaceful solution dependent on the Israeli government. Governments in Israel come and go, whereas peace is a fixed goal that one must work towards consistently, even when there is no partner," he said.

"I am not very optimistic about this government," he added, describing it as an "extreme, far-right government that does not support peace."

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who was in Damascus on Sunday in the final days of a regional rour, supported Assad’s position that Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria.

"China supports Syria’s efforts to recover the Golan," which Israel seized during the 1967 war and annexed in 1981, Yang told reporters during a joint news conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
Split in Israel

Lieberman told the German paper Berliner Zeitung in an interview published Saturday that Syria was not a viable partner for peace because of its support for Hamas and "terror organizations."

In an interview with the Austrian daily Kleine Zeitung he said the Syrians "must cease their support for terrorism and close the centers of the terrorist organizations," referring to the Palestinian groups Hamas and the Jihad. "Only then will be able to begin discussing our future ties."

"(The) diplomatic process is not the most important thing for achieving a viable peace," he added, noting their were several things that needed to be achieve, the most important being security for Israel.

On Sunday Lieberman told Israeli Radio that he was only willing to negotiate peace with Syria if talks were held without preconditions.

Contradicting Lieberman’s statements to the European papers, Barak said that "negotiations with Syria should always be part of the Israeli government’s agenda."

"Israel has an interest in normalizing its relations with Syria while protecting its vital interests," Barak told reporters in Jerusalem ahead of Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Syria and Israel held indirect peace talks last May following an eight-year hiatus, but they were suspended after Israel launched a deadly offensive against the Gaza Strip in December.

( and Agencies)

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