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Israel Invites Syrian President for Peace Talks

Israeli President Moshe Katsav has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to come to Israel for peace talks. But the invitation is already being dismissed by Syrian officials, who are saying it is not a serious effort to resume negotiations.

President Moshe Katsav on Monday invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Jerusalem, with no preconditions.

President Katsav told Israel Radio Monday that, under the authority he has as the president of Israel, he has invited the president of Syria to come to Jerusalem to conduct what he termed serious peace negotiations.

Mr. Katsav said Israel must seriously examine the Syrian president's recent proposal to renew negotiations with Israel.

In early December, the Syrian leader told The New York Times that he was ready to resume negotiations with Israel where they broke off in 2000, with Israel offering to return nearly all of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Mr. Katsav said that "the intentions, level of seriousness and motives" behind the Syrian president's apparent readiness to talk peace would be examined through "secret channels." But he made clear his invitation has no conditions attached.

As Israel's head of state, Mr. Katsav has only limited political influence.

A Syrian official rejected the invitation as not a serious effort to resume peace talks. Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban told CNN Monday that a serious response would have been to say, "yes, we are interested in peace, we want to resume negotiations where they stopped."

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Sharon said he was ready to resume peace talks under one condition. "I believe that what should be done is that Syria should stop the help and support of terrorist organizations," he said. "And if that will happen, I believe that Israel will be very glad to negotiate."

Mr. Sharon singled out what he said was Syria's backing of the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also referred to the support he says Damascus gives to Palestinian militants. He was speaking during a Jerusalem news conference.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Sharon told the cabinet that Israel should not rush to embrace the Syrian initiative before thoroughly investigating what lies behind its interest in resuming peace talks.