Barak Ravid
April 21, 2008 - 6:06pm

Former U.S. president Carter clarified in a meeting last week with Syrian president Bashar Assad that the U.S. would not stand in the way of serious peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.

Carter also said the U.S. would even support any agreement that is reached. He told Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin at a meeting in Jerusalem on Monday that he had made these statements to Assad.

The former U.S. president approached Beilin in an effort to jumpstart a "Syrian Geneva Accord," which would put on the table a comprehensive plan for peace between Israel and Syria. Carter was referring to an unofficial peace proposal that included unprecedented compromises for both Israelis and Palestinians, which was first launched in late 2003.

Beilin told Carter that the Israeli government failed in its attempt to de-legitimize his visit, and that the public understands better than its government the need for a cease fire and for the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

In a meeting on Monday with another MK, Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, Carter discussed the state of Israel's Arab minority. Tibi accused Israel of discriminating against its Arab citizens.

Carter said that the American public is unaware of the discrimination Arab Israelis suffer from and suggested that Tibi do more to increase U.S. public awareness of the matter.

Also Monday, Carter said that Assad is "eager" to restart negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights and believes that 85 percent of the differences between the two countries have already been resolved.

Speaking to reporters following talks with officials in Syria and Egypt, Carter said: "In all my conversations with President Assad, whom I've known since he was a college student, I was impressed with their eagerness, complete the agreement on the Golan Heights."

According to Carter, Assad said that "the only major difference in starting good faith talks was that Israel insisted that there will be no public acknowledgement that the talks were going on when Syria insisted that the talks would not be a secret."

The former U.S. president also relayed that Assad believes "85 percent of the differences [between Israel and Syria] had already been resolved, including an agreement on the borders, on water rights - which is applied on the Sea of Galilee - on the security zone and on the presence of international forces."

Carter reiterated that "Syria believes that for all practical purposes all the differences have already been resolved between Syria and Israel and it is just a matter of reconvening the talks and concluding an agreement."

Speaking about the possibility of renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria, he said "Syria wants the U.S. to play a strong role in bringing to two sides together."

In recent days, both Olmert and Assad have confirmed putting out feelers to each other about resuming negotiations

Talks broke off in 2000 after Syria rejected Israel's offer to return the
Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed.

Assad confirms trading messages with Israel
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday that he has exchanged messages with Israel through a third party to explore the possibility of resuming peace talks, the country's official news agency SANA reported.

During a meeting with Syria's ruling Baath Party officials, Assad commented on media reports about indirect contact between the two countries.

"There are efforts exerted in this direction," he was quoted as saying.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Haaretz last week in an interview "I know exactly what the Syrians want and I think the Syrians know what the State of Israel and I expect from the peace process."

Assad echoed these comments Sunday, saying "Israel knows well what is accepted and not accepted by Syria."

"Syria rejects secret [direct] talks or contacts with Israel... Anything Syria does in this regard will be announced to the public," Assad was quoted as saying.

Negotiations broke off in 2000 after Syria rejected Israel's offer to return the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.

Syria wanted Israel to withdraw to the prewar line on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. But Israel wasn't prepared to give up any control of the lake that provides about half of the country's drinking water.

Despite the peace overtures, tensions have been high between the two countries in recent months, largely stemming from a reported Israeli airstrike on a Syrian military facility in September. Some foreign reports have said the target was a nuclear installation Syria was building with North Korean assistance.

Damascus denies having a nuclear program, and North Korea says it was not involved in any such project. Syria did not retaliate for the attack.

Both Syria and Israel have expressed a willingness to renew talks since Israel's war against the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia in 2006. Olmert has insisted that if Syria is serious about peace, Damascus must withdraw its support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Casting himself as a champion of Arab rights, Assad said Syria would remain "a country of resistance and opposition" to what Damascus regards as aggressive U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East.

"The more steadfast we are the more fierce the campaigns against us become," he said, according to the state news agency.


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