Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post
March 10, 2009 - 12:00am

Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu has no intention of sidelining the Palestinian track in favor of a Syrian one, Dore Gold, one of Netanyahu's top foreign policy advisers, said Monday.

Gold's comments came the same day that Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published in the United Arab Emirates daily Al-Khaleej that while a peace deal with Israel was possible, normal relations would only come about if Israel ended its conflict with the Palestinians.

"There will perhaps be an embassy and formalities, but if you want peace, then it has to be comprehensive. We give them the choice between comprehensive peace and a peace agreement which does not have any real value on the ground," Assad said in the interview, according to a Reuters report.

"There is a difference between a peace agreement and peace itself," he said. "A peace agreement is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise. Our people will not accept that, especially since there are half a million Palestinians in our country whose position remains unresolved. It is impossible under these terms to have peace in the natural sense."

Assad said it was in the Palestinians' interest to coordinate with Damascus regarding its talks with Israel, to avoid Israel's putting off a resolution with the Palestinians.

"We believe that if Israel signs [a peace agreement] with Syria, Israel will put away the Palestinian question," he said.

Gold, however, said he believed "Netanyahu has made it clear that presently he would like to focus on the Palestinian track."

He added that those who "suggest that he will begin by working on the negotiations with Syria are basing themselves on an inaccurate reading of Netanyahu's diplomacy in 1998, during his contacts with Damascus."

According to Gold, "there is an unfounded mythology that has gained some currency" that Netanyahu was willing to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights in 1998. "It is not true," he said.

That "mythology," however, is feeding those who say Netanyahu would prefer focusing on the Syrian track, rather than the Palestinian one.

Gold said that while contact with Arab countries was positive, it was necessary to see what the Syrian policy was, whether it could change, and whether Damascus would continue to support terrorist organizations. The new government, he said, would conduct a policy review and determine a position.

He said, however, that there seemed to be more opportunity on the Palestinian track at this point.

"But if you begin to run after the Syrian track with the same intensity, you won't achieve anything either there or here," he said.

Gold declined to comment on whether Netanyahu would like to continue using Turkey as an intermediary with Syria, saying that it was "premature" to talk about Netanyahu's policies on such matters.

He said there would "certainly" be a policy review that would include a detailed briefing on where the indirect talks with Syria led, and what the security and diplomatic establishments recommended.

Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Turkey, praised Ankara's mediation in talks between Syria and Israel last year.

"The importance of this track, the peace effort, cannot be overstated," she said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said his country would be willing to resume its mediation role if the parties wanted it.

Despite anger in Jerusalem at the way Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan viciously criticized Israel over Operation Cast Lead, there is an understanding that the Turkish-Israeli alliance is an important one to safeguard, and the question of whether to give Turkey a role in the talks would probably hinge on whether this were deemed something that helped or hindered that alliance.

Some in Jerusalem believe that Assad's comments about wanting to coordinate positions with the Palestinians might have been made because he has internalized that the new Netanyahu government will want to begin with the Palestinian track, and that Assad was signaling that he was also still very much in the game.

Talks with Israel now, according to this assessment, would also help Assad deflect criticism likely to be aimed his way as a result of the tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, which opened in The Hague on March 1.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017