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Sharon: Cost of Peace with Syria Too High - 2004-01-20

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the price of peace with Syria would be withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and such a cost is too high. News of Mr. Sharon's pessimistic assessment came in Israeli newspaper reports Tuesday following a meeting of the parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs committee.

The reports said a committee member asked Mr. Sharon whether now is the time to renew peace talks with Syria, as Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has proposed. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin told reporters the Israeli leader responded by saying, no one should have any illusions. The price of peace with Syria is leaving the Golan Heights.

Knesset member Ran Cohen, who attended the meeting, said Mr. Sharon then made it clear that he thought such a price would be too much for Israel to bear.

Reports of the prime minister's blunt statements about peace prospects with Syria came following an equally pessimistic assessment from the Syrian President. Mr. Assad told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Monday that he puts the blame for the lack of progress on the United States and Israel. He charged that the U.S. administration does not wish to throw itself into the peace process. President al-Assad also said he believes Mr. Sharon's political support would erode if he were to pursue peace with Syria.

Several weeks ago the Syrian leader called for a resumption of peace talks at the point where they broke off in 2000, under Mr. Sharon's predecessor Ehud Barak. Mr. Sharon has expressed no willingness to accept the Syrian condition and has laid down one of his own, that the al-Assad government crackdown on militant groups that Israel maintains Damascus is supporting.