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Israeli Politicians Push for Resumption of Talks with Syria - 2004-01-08

Senior Israeli politicians and army generals are pushing the government to seize what they see as an opportunity to re-start peace talks with Syria. Their statements follow a recent overture from Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, which they say should not be ignored.

Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli Radio that now is the time to explore a resumption of peace negotiations with Syria.

Mr. Netanyahu, a former right-wing prime minister, says the situation today is completely different than it was when he made his own attempts to reach a peace agreement with President Assad's father in the 1990s. He indicated that Syria is under much more pressure to alter its stance, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Mr. Netanyahu says Syria needs peace with Israel during a time that despotic regimes are being removed around the world. He said this could be to Israel's advantage.

Mr. Netanyahu also says that Damascus is no longer in a position to ask Israel to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria during the 1967 war.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also told Israel Radio that it is time to seriously examine Syria's recent offer to resume negotiations. He says this is a way of signaling to other Arab countries that Israel is interested in making peace.

But like Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli Foreign Minister refused to commit himself to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of the price for reaching peace with Syria. Mr. Shalom says Syria's intentions need to be examined seriously, and that talks should be held without preconditions.

Senior Israeli military commanders have appealed to the government to put Syrian President Assad to the test, following his statement last month indicating a willingness to re-start peace talks.

Israeli media reported that Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Moshe Ya'alon and three of his deputies say there should be a positive response to Mr. Assad's gesture.

Last month, President Assad asked the United States to support a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.