JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel has brushed off the Syrian president’s recent calls to restart peace talks as a ploy by Bashar Assad to deflect international pressure from his increasingly isolated regime.

But some in Israel say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be making a major mistake in ignoring even a slim chance to pursue peace with one of his country’s most implacable enemies. “Olmert could have gone down in history as Menachem Begin, who gave Sinai back to Egypt,” journalist Tom Segev wrote in the Haaretz daily Tuesday. “Instead, he is reacting to Syria’s offers of peace with contempt, loathing and threats.”

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, meanwhile, invited the Syrian leader to come to Jerusalem. “What would happen if Assad said he is coming to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament)?” Peres said. “He must get up and say, ‘I want to talk peace directly with Israel.’ That’s all,” Peres told Israel TV in an interview aired Tuesday.

Israeli-Syrian peace talks broke down in 2000, with Syria demanding assurances it would get back all of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and later annexed. Israel wanted slight modifications to the pre-1967 line, conforming to the international frontier, and insisted that issues of security and normalization be spelled out first.

Assad has sporadically called for new talks, but his appeals grew more intense following this summer’s war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, which Syria backed. The fighting increased international criticism of Assad’s regime, already hit by accusations it was involved in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and was letting militants use Syria as a transit point into neighboring Iraq.

“We want to make peace – peace with Israel,” Assad told the German magazine Der Spiegel last month. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. broadcast Monday, Assad said it remained to be seen whether Israel had the will to make peace.

Olmert has rejected talks with Syria, accusing it of harboring terrorists and saying he will not relinquish the Golan.

“As long as I am prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands,” he was quoted as telling the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpaha last month.

Syria’s support for Hezbollah and its refusal to force top Palestinian militants to close their offices in Damascus has also angered Israel.

Assad has hoped to use those issues to strengthen his position in future peace talks, but Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Tuesday that they are obstacles to even starting those talks.

“Israel would love to start peace talks with a Syrian government that doesn’t arm Hezbollah, that doesn’t have a foreign minister who sides with Hezbollah, with a government that doesn’t promote and provide a sanctuary for the head terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and others,” she said.

Israeli analysts say Assad is using the possibility of peace with Israel to blunt international criticism.

“He is isolated. He is beleaguered. He is controversial, internationally speaking. He hopes to reap dividends from adopting a peaceful posture,” said Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former chief negotiator with Syria.

Those imputed motives wouldn’t mean that Assad is not serious about pursuing new talks to get back the Golan – a perennial Syrian demand that would strengthen Assad domestically – in exchange for a peace deal that would benefit him internationally, Israeli analysts said.

But Olmert has less incentive to head into negotiations.

He is already under fire for his government’s conduct of the Lebanon war, and talks with Syria would fan the flames, adding the media savvy Israelis living in the Golan to his list of critics.

“I think that Olmert either doesn’t want to pay the price – and the price is known to everyone, the price is the Golan Heights – or he thinks that he is too weak to pay the price,” said Shlomo Brom, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University.

Gilad Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said Syria’s continuing support of terrorism should not close off diplomatic channels to solving the conflict.

“Israel must not reject Assad’s hints outright, but rather it must begin a cautious, measured and pragmatic process in which Assad’s willingness is analyzed,” he wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “If it is all merely a ruse, we will know as much very quickly. If not, and negotiations over a peace arrangement are begun, that will do nothing to detract from Israel’s power of deterrence.”

“After all, one can always say, ‘no,”‘ he wrote.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.