Agence France Presse (AFP)
July 7, 2009 - 12:00am

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Middle Eastern leaders on Tuesday to seize the "window of opportunity" that the new US administration has opened in the region.

US President Barak Obama's initiative "creates many opportunities that we need to use now," Steinmeier said after meeting Lebanese prime minister designate Saad Hariri in Beirut.

"That is why all the partners must take part constructively in this process and make their positions clear quickly before the window of opportunity closes."

The Obama administration has repeatedly called for a complete halt to Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and has demanded that the Israeli government sign up to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Steinmeier, who visited Damascus earlier before heading to Beirut, also voiced support for the resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations to help pave the way for eventual talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Dialogue between Syria and Israel was frozen after the Jewish state launched a massive offensive against the Gaza Strip last December.

Steinmeier expressed concern that the Syrian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas had shown "no interest in the success of the peace talks."

"In my view, the peace process can only proceed when destructive elements in the region are reined in," the German foreign minister said in a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem.

Muallem said his country was keen to have further indirect contacts with Israel.

But he added that demands for Damascus to break its longstanding alliance with Hezbollah and its main foreign sponsor Iran were an issue that went beyond the peace process set by an international conference in Madrid in 1991 -- the exchange of land for peace.

"As for the issue of our relations with Hezbollah or Iran, that's a precondition," he said of Israeli demands for a clean break as part of a normalisation of ties under any peace deal with the Jewish state.

"We think a resumption of indirect contacts with Israel through Turkish go-betweens is the best way of getting to direct negotiations, but first and foremost we have to be confident that there is a political will in Israel to achieve peace."

Muallem said Syria's demands for the unconditional return of the whole of the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community, was an entirely different matter.

"Yes, we do what to get the Golan back on a silver platter," he said. "Let's face it -- it's our land and our right to have it back is the most normal thing in the world."

The last direct peace talks between Israel and Syria, sponsored by the United States, broke down in 2000 when Israel baulked at handing back the entire Golan right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main water source.

Israel's right-leaning government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the idea of exchanging the Golan for peace with Syria.


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