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Syria Denies US Pressure on Peace With Israel

Syria's ambassador to Washington says his country's readiness to reach a peace deal with Israel is not the result of U.S. pressure and denies any secret meetings with Israel. The Syrian official appears to be attempting to change negative attitudes toward his country.

Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha denies there are any secret peace talks with Israel. "Why do we need secret meetings? We have had two public long-rounds of negotiations. We cannot fathom the need for what is called secret meetings," he said.

Mr. Moustapha says his government's position has not changed on what is needed to make peace with Israel; the return of all of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Ambassador Moustapha says President Bashar al Assad is ready to pick up where negotiations broke off three-years ago. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not appear willing to accept that condition. And he is demanding that Damascus first crack down on militants that Israel accuses Syria of supporting.

Israeli newspapers report Mr. Sharon has told parliament leaders the price for peace, leaving the Golan Heights, is too high. The Israeli leader recently has allowed construction of new settlements in the disputed territory. "It is not only what Sharon has been repeatedly saying. It is actions on the ground. When we say we do not believe Sharon is ready for peace it is just commenting on his declared statements and on his actions. However, we did not say we refuse to resume peace negotiations with Israel as long as Ariel Sharon is prime minister of Israel," he said.

In an interview with a leading Middle East newspaper on Monday, Syria's president blamed the United States and Israel for the lack of progress.

Mr. Moustapha appears to be trying to change skeptical views in Washington about Syria's intentions. He has been speaking to groups in several U.S. cities. "We have been repeating the same stance. We have not changed anything. The only difference is we are trying to be as clear and loud here in Washington, DC, as possible, which I admit we were not very successful in doing this in the past," he said.

Ambassador Moustapha dismisses suggestions that the renewed push for peace is the result of increased U.S. pressure since the Iraq war or economic sanctions recently imposed by U.S. lawmakers.