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Israel to Consider Syrian Bid to Restart Peace Talks - 2003-12-28

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, says he is considering a recent overture from Syria to restart peace talks.

Mr. Sharon says he is investigating whether a recent statement by Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, indicating a willingness to resume peace talks with Israel, is sincere.

The Israeli prime minister told his cabinet the offer deserves investigation, and he asked Israeli officials to look into the matter and come up with a recommendation.

Mr. Sharon's comments contrast sharply with Israel's initial reaction to Mr. Assad's statements earlier this month in a conciliatory interview with The New York Times.

Mr. Assad urged the United States to resume mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, remarks first viewed by Israel as an attempt by Damascus to improve its relations with Washington.

Mr. Sharon says Israel will study Syria's motives and whether the overture is real or a response to pressure from the United States. He says that before Israel would consider resuming negotiations, Syria would have to take certain steps.

Mr. Sharon said that Syria, which is the main power broker in Lebanon, would have to banish the militant Islamic group Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. He says this would allow the Lebanese army to deploy along the border with Israel to dismantle the rockets and other weapons currently positioned there by the Hezbollah and aimed at the Jewish state.

Previous negotiations between Israel and Syria ended in 2000 without result.

After succeeding his late father in the same year, Mr. Assad adopted a tough stance against Israel. His comments earlier this month were the first public sign of a possible change in his position.