Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is ready for peace talks with Syria, but only if Damascus stops supporting terrorism. Mr. Sharon broke his public silence on the issue, after one of his senior ministers confirmed that Israel recently held secret discussions with Syrian officials.
Mr. Sharon laid out his conditions under which Israel would agree to a resumption of formal peace talks with Syria. "I believe that what should be done is that Syria should stop the help and support of terrorist organizations. And if that will happen, I believe that Israel will be very glad to negotiate. It should be without any preconditions," he said.
Mr. Sharon made his statement in response to a question during a news conference in Jerusalem attended by foreign journalists and diplomats.
He specifically identified Syrian backing of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon and made veiled references to the support Damascus gives to Palestinian armed groups.
It was the first time Mr. Sharon had expressed his position, since a statement last month by Syrian President Bashir al-Assad urging the United States to help revive peace talks with Israel.
Earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom disclosed that the Sharon government held secret contacts with Syria several months ago, but these had since been aborted. "We had some kind of relations with very close persons to President Assad. Unfortunately, after two meetings that the Israeli partners had with their Syrian colleagues, it leaked out. And while it was exposed, of course the Syrians did not continue to negotiate through this track," he said.
These contacts are believed to have been the first between Israel and Syria since the last round of formal talks between the two countries collapsed in 2000.
Syria is demanding the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. But many Israelis argue this territory must be kept to protect the Jewish State from Syrian attack.