Assad seeks Israeli guarantees before peace talks

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria will enter peace talks with Israel only if the Jewish state commits first to a complete withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday.

“There must be guarantees to return the whole land. We cannot enter negotiations without knowing what they’re going to be about. They must present a word of trust or something written,” Assad said in a speech to the Syrian parliament after he was sworn in for a second seven-year term.

“For us peace is tied with the word ‘land’. We’re with the resumption of talks ... to achieve the main principle of land for peace and the return of the whole Golan,” he said.

Asked about Assad’s speech, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Syria’s support for Israel’s adversaries stood in the way of peace talks.

“The problem is that Syria is the only Arab state that has a strategic partnership with Iran and the only Arab state that has structured collaborative relationships with extremist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad,” Regev said.

“It is very difficult to take the Syrian leadership seriously as a credible partner in peace,” he said.

Peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Syria has made clear it wants the United States, Israel’s chief ally, to oversee any new talks. Washington, which imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, has shown little enthusiasm for involvement in another bout of Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Damascus, under U.S.-led pressure over its role in Lebanon and Iraq, has intensified its calls in the last two years for Israel to resume negotiations on returning the Golan in exchange for peace. The two countries are formally at war.

Israel has demanded that Damascus cut ties with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran before any more talks. Damascus rejects this, saying Israeli occupation of Arab lands is behind the region’s ills and raises hatred toward the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week he was ready to talk directly with Assad over the Golan, a fertile plateau occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in a move declared null by the United Nations Security Council.

Olmert has not specified how much of the Golan Israel is willing to return, but third parties have proposed solutions that would effectively result in full Israeli withdrawal from the area.

Several countries have relayed messages between Olmert and Assad. The 41-year-old Syrian leader said he preferred to go through “third-party channels to put a framework in place ahead of talks”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered on Monday to help the two countries conduct peace negotiations, although Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has ruled out resuming the talks.