May 16, 2009 / 5:01 PM / 10 years ago

Israeli official says Syria's Assad insincere on peace

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not want a peace accord with Israel, but rather, to parlay peace negotiations into rapprochement with the West, a senior Israeli official said on Saturday.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon sits in his office during an interview with Reuters in Jerusalem in this April 20, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will discuss regional strategies with U.S. President Barack Obama at their first summit next week, has been cool to resuming talks with Damascus given its demand for a return of the Golan Heights.

Assad held preliminary, Turkish-mediated contacts with the right-wing Netanyahu’s centrist predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and on Friday played down prospects of pursuing them, saying: “We don’t have a partner”.

Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a speech on Saturday that Assad, by blaming Israel for the deadlock, was “mistaken, or lying”.

“Today’s Syria is a police state, controlled by a small family,” said Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington whose far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party is junior partner in Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition government.

“In my opinion, he (Assad) does not really want peace with Israel. He wants a peace process that will rescue him from his isolation and lift the pressure of the international community.”

The United States on Friday renewed sanctions against Syria saying it posed a continuing threat to U.S. interests. Obama accused Damascus of supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programmes, and undermining U.S. and international efforts in trying to stabilise Iraq.

While the United States has made clear it wants better ties with Syria, the renewal of the sanctions shows it is not yet ready for a dramatic improvement.

Israel is incensed at Syria’s alliance with Iran and sponsorship of Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas sworn to fighting the Jewish state.

“The State of Israel should tell, and it does tell, Assad: Show us that you are serious. First of all, no preconditions,” Ayalon said, alluding to the demand for the Golan, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed, a move not recognised by the Security Council.

“Secondly, if you really want peace, you cannot ... also support and arm Hezbollah, support and arm Hamas, support and arm Islamic Jihad, try to erode all the processes in the Middle East and be Iran’s most important ally.”

Syria has ruled out a review of its alliances as part of the peace process with Israel. It has also demanded that Israel commit to ceding the Golan for full peace negotiations to proceed, something rejected by the Netanyahu government.

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