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US Cool to Israeli Dialogue With Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz discussed Syria, and the Iranian nuclear program, in a meeting Wednesday that opened an annual bilateral strategic dialogue. U.S. officials are making clear their misgivings about an early resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The talks here were preceded by reports of Syrian overtures to Israel about possible negotiations, and comments by Mofaz about the need for Israel to test Syria's intentions.

However the Bush administration has been publicly cool to the idea, with some U.S. officials saying Syria may be seeking dialogue with Israel to relieve diplomatic pressure over its behavior in Lebanon and Iraq.

In comments after a 45-minute meeting between Rice and the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the issue was raised at the meeting and that the Bush administration is unenthusiastic.

"Look, we're not going to manage Israeli foreign policy," he said. "They'll make their own decisions. But take a look at Syria's behavior over the recent past, and I don't think you're going to find many indications of Syria showing the rest of the world that they are interested in playing a constructive, positive role in trying to bring about a more secure, peaceful region."

For his part, Mofaz told reporters after the meeting Israel agrees with Washington that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, rather than a Syrian track, should be the "first priority."

The former Israeli defense minister and army chief of staff confirmed that Israel has been monitoring Syrian military exercises near the Golan Heights, but he said his government believes the activity is mainly defensive in nature.

The meeting here, to be followed by more detailed U.S.-Israeli security discussions Thursday, also dealt with Iran and its nuclear program.

Mofaz said Israel is willing at least until year's end to allow diplomatic efforts to curb the Iranian program to produce results, while also stressing concerns about Iran's support for Lebanon's Hezbollah militiamen, with whom Israel went to war last year:

"Iran continues a military nuclear program, and I believe that diplomatic efforts should [be allowed to] bear results, until the end of 2007," he said. "Speaking about Iran, I would like to add that the Iranians are continuing to re-build and re-supply the Hezbollah, mainly with long-range rockets that endanger the southern and central parts of Israel."

Spokesman McCormack said both Mofaz and Secretary Rice expressed hope that the postponement of Wednesday's planned meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be brief, that the leaders' dialogue, brokered by Rice earlier this year, will continue.

Officials say Rice is preparing another trip to the Middle East later this month that is expected to include a meeting in Cairo of the international Middle East Quartet and officials of the Arab League.

The Quartet, which includes the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, is seeking to revive Israel-Palestinian talks based on its 2003 Middle East peace "road map."

The Arab League, for its part, reaffirmed several weeks ago its 2002 overture offering Israel Arab-wide normalized relations if it reaches a peace deal with the Palestinians and withdraws to 1967 borders.

There are reports that Prime Minister Olmert and Mr. Abbas will be invited to the Arab League-Quartet meeting, but a senior U.S. diplomat said he could not confirm that.

Mr. Olmert is due to meet President Bush in Washington June 19, less than a week before the anticipated Cairo gathering on June 25.