| (Left) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Israeli counterpart Moshe Katsav. (AFP)
Jerusalem, Jan. 12 (Reuters): Israel’s President today invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Jerusalem for negotiations with Israeli leaders, but Damascus rejected the offer as “not serious”.
“I invite the President of Syria to come to Jerusalem and meet with the heads of the state and hold serious negotiations,” President Moshe Katsav said on Israel Radio.
Although Katsav has largely ceremonial powers, his appeal added to pressure within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government for the Right-wing leader to respond favourably to Assad’s recent call to resume peace talks broken off in 2000.
Responding to the invitation, Syrian expatriates minister Buthaina Shaaban told CNN: “We need a serious response, this is not a serious response.”
She said Israel needed to say it was interested in resuming peace talks where they stopped four years ago.
The negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, ended without any agreement on the future of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s biggest reservoir. But officials have said the two sides, still technically at war, were divided only over the issue of control of a narrow strip of land at water’s edge. Israel was ruled by a Centre-Left government at the time.
Agreement to resume the talks at the point at which they were suspended would effectively force Sharon to agree, even before sitting down at the negotiating table, to a pullout from almost all of the Golan Heights.
Sharon has long opposed withdrawal from the strategic heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally. Some 17,000 Jewish settlers and 20,000 Druze live on the Golan.
It was not immediately clear if Katsav had sought or received Sharon’s blessing for the invitation, but Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom expressed regrets that Syria had rejected the offer.
“I am very sorry about it, and it shows the Syrian leadership is not serious about its willingness and readiness to resume negotiations with Israel,” Shalom said.
Katsav broached the proposal amid a peacemaking deadlock with the Palestinians and threats by Sharon to embark on go-it-alone moves should a US-backed peace plan, stalled by violence, fail.
Piling pressure on Sharon, tens of thousands of Right-wingers protested in Tel Aviv yesterday against his proposal to move some settlers from the West Bank and Gaza and unilaterally draw a border in the absence of a peace deal. The rally was the biggest show of force by the pro-settler movement since Sharon revealed his proposal late last year for unilateral steps to separate from the Palestinians. Sharon’s office had no comment on Katsav’s invitation.
The Prime Minister said a day earlier that Israel was ready for peace talks only if Damascus halted support for “terrorist agents”, a reference to Palestinian militant groups and Lebanon’s Hizbollah.
Israel has previously voiced concern that Syria’s peace gestures were linked more to improving ties with Washington than by a real desire to reach a settlement. But some Israeli politicians have said that Israel should negotiate now with a Syrian leader who has been weakened by the US invasion of Iraq and could be open to concessions.