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Israel Urged to Resume Talks with Syria

Egypt and the United Nations are among those urging Israel to accept Syrian offers to resume peace talks. The Israeli government shows no inclination to do so, but some say it is missing a rare opportunity.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was in Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The main purpose of the meetings was to discuss cooperation for Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.

But Egypt has also been urging Israel and Syria to resume peace negotiations. Mr. Aboul Gheit said while he had not brought messages from Damascus, he would urge the two sides to restart talks.

"I would encourage very much Israel engaging with Syria on discussions according to whatever would be agreed upon between both," he said.

Talks between Israel and Syria have been held under previous Israeli governments, but they never reached an agreement. The most recent negotiations broke down in 2000.

In return for peace, Syria wants a complete return of the Golan Heights, land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and has since annexed.

The Sharon government has not spoken of returning land and the prime minister has said that if Syria wants to talk it must first rein in Hezbollah guerrillas along the Israeli-Lebanese border and expel what he has called the terrorist headquarters of Palestinian militant groups.

That position has not changed as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Israel Radio.

Mr. Mofaz accused Syria of allowing Hezbollah to obtain long-range missiles and of continuing to allow it to use Lebanese territory to launch attacks against Israel. But Mr. Mofaz also said he hopes that at some point in the future conditions for a dialogue might be right.

The U.N. Middle East envoy, Terje-Roed Larsen thinks that time has come. Tuesday, he told members of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he believes Damascus is serious about resuming talks and urged Israel not to miss this opportunity. The U.N. envoy met with Syrian leaders last week in Damascus.

There have been numerous suggestions for reviving talks during the past year and overtures to that effect from Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Several months ago, Prime Minister Sharon told an Israeli newspaper he rejected a November 2003 American offer to resume talks with Syria.

Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper reports President Assad signaled he was ready to come to Jerusalem to revive peace talks, but Israeli officials dismissed the offer.

Mr. Sharon's office says it knows nothing of such an offer and a Syrian Foreign Ministry official is quoted as saying the story is baseless.