Shalom reveals he held contacts with Syrian officials
During Knesset debate, FM said he met with Assadâ€™s associates three weeks after war in Iraq began. He added meetings, which were approved by Sharon, called off by Syrians following press leaks.
Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom revealed this (Wednesday) evening at the Knesset that he had held contacts with Syrian officials close to President Bashar Assad.
During a debate about the Syrian leaderâ€™s declaration he was willing to resume talks with Israel without preconditions, Shalom disclosed that about 18 months ago he held secret contacts with Syria that were approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
According to Shalom, three weeks after the war in Iraq began, he met with Assadâ€™s associates. He added that that the meetings were called off by the Syrians following leaks to the press.
This morning, "Maariv" revealed that the Syrian President was willing to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset in 2003, as a first gesture before resuming peace talks with Jerusalem. However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the offer.
â€œIsrael missed a golden opportunity to return to the negotiating table in ideal conditions as first as it was concernedâ€, senior defense and political sources said.
Assadâ€™s proposal was brought up during the secret contacts held between Israel and Syria at the beginning of 2003, which were revealed by â€œMaarivâ€ at the time.
All those involved believed Assad was serious about peace: The Syrians themselves, who kept on stressing that Assad himself was in the loop, Israeli military officials who identified Damascusâ€™s positive approach, the international bodies involved and even Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom who was of the opinion that Jerusalem should try and resume the dialogue course. However, the only person who objected Ariel Sharon.
The 2003 talks, which were held in Jordan, were headed by the Director General of the Foreign Ministry at the time, Eitan Bentzur, while the Syrians sent the presidentâ€™s brother, Maher Assad.
Speaking with Maariv on Tuesday this week, Bentzur confirmed the information but refused to elaborate. â€œThe contacts were very serious. I am sorry that there were those in Israel who dismissed themâ€, he said.
The defense establishment estimated that while contacts were held, Assad was under heavy pressure due to the planned US invasion of Iraq and rumors that American Marines would continue on to Damascus after conquering Iraq.
They believed Assad was willing to make extensive compromises to cut himself from the US â€œfood chainâ€.
On Tuesday, UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed Larson urged Israel to accept Syrian President Bashar Assadâ€™s offer to resume peace negotiations without conditions.
Larson who spoke with reporters after he appeared before the Knessetâ€™s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, reiterated what the Syrian leader told him last week in Damascus, â€œAssad told me straight and simple that he was ready to resume talks without any preconditions of any kindâ€.