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Sharon Rejects US Proposal for Peace Talks With Syria - 2004-09-14

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he rebuffed a U.S. effort last year to restart peace talks with Syria. He made the surprise revelation during an interview published today in a leading Israeli newspaper.

Mr. Sharon says White House envoy Elliot Abrams made the proposal during a meeting in Rome in November of last year. He says Mr. Abrams told him the Syrians were ready to enter into negotiations. But, Mr. Sharon told Israel's Haaretz newspaper, he rebuffed the American proposal for talks, adding, the issue was never raised again.

Talks between the two hostile neighbors have been held under previous prime ministers, but they never reached an agreement.

In exchange for peace, Syria wants a complete return of the Golan Heights, land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and has since annexed. Mr. Sharon describes previous talks with Damascus as "dangerous to Israel." He rules out agreeing to Syrian demands.

Mr. Sharon says if Syria really wants to talk it must first expel, what he calls, the "terrorist headquarters" of Palestinian militant groups and rein in Hezbollah guerrillas along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

A few weeks after the Rome meeting, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he was ready to talk with the Israelis. He repeated the overture just last week. Mr. Sharon rejected both offers, saying the Syrian leader was only trying to lessen American pressure on Damascus.

In the Haaretz newspaper interview, Mr. Sharon also discloses that during his meeting with Mr. Abrams last year, he surprised the American envoy by mentioning for the first time his own proposal for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

That plan was later sanctioned by Washington and is now being hotly debated in Israel.