Olmert rejects talking to Syria

No negotiations until support for Hezbollah ends, Israeli says


JERUSALEM -- Rejecting suggestions that Israel open channels to Syria, a backer of Hezbollah, after the recent war in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that there could be no negotiations with Damascus as long as it supports militant groups that have attacked Israel.

"I would recommend not harboring false hopes," Olmert said. "When Syria stops its support for terror, when Syria stops supplying missiles that are aimed at Israel's cities, when Syria stops supplying weapons that are used against Israeli civilians and Israeli soldiers, we shall certainly be happy to negotiate with it."

Speaking during a tour of communities in northern Israel that had been hit by Hezbollah rockets, Olmert called Syria "a committed, aggressive member of the axis of evil, which starts in Iran," adding that Palestinian militant groups had ordered attacks on Israel from headquarters in Damascus.

Olmert's remarks followed a suggestion by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, that Israel could return the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, in exchange for peace.

"In return for a true peace with Syria or with Lebanon ... I think that what we did with Egypt and with Jordan is legitimate here as well." Dichter told Army Radio.

Israel returned all of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt as part of a 1979 peace treaty, and it handed back territory to Jordan in a 1994 peace treaty, though not the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the rights to which Jordan relinquished to the Palestinians.

Syria, a powerbroker in Lebanon, could play a key role in defusing the confrontation there between Israel and Hezbollah as part of a peace treaty. But the Syrian leadership has maintained that any peace deal depends on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

In a speech last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad warned Israel that time was not on its side and that Syria could take military action to recover the Golan Heights if there were no progress toward negotiations.

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said yesterday that Israel could not handle peace talks with Syria now.

"We have the burden of Lebanon, and we have the negotiations with the Palestinians," Peres told Israel Radio. "I don't think a country like ours can deal with so many issues at a time."

During a meeting yesterday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz told United Nations envoy Terje Larsen that conditions are not right or talks with Syria, Peretz's office said.

Those remarks contradicted Peretz's statement last week that in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, "we should create the conditions for dialogue also with Syria."

In southern Lebanon, where a tenuous cease-fire is in effect, Israeli troops shot and killed at least two Hezbollah men when three guerrillas approached the soldiers "in a threatening manner," the army said. The army said its forces are under orders to fire in self-defense.

Olmert is facing growing calls for a state commission of inquiry into the conduct of the war in Lebanon, which many Israelis think failed to achieve its aims. Much of the protest is coming from demobilized army reservists who have complained that they were given confusing orders without clear goals and were sent on risky missions without adequate equipment, food and water.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum also have called for a state inquiry commission, and the idea is also backed by three Cabinet ministers.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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