Syria rejects Israeli proposal for resuming stalled talks

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During a joint news conference Monday with Hussein, the prime minister said he had conveyed a proposal to the Syrians for restarting the talks, which were suspended March 4 when Syria failed to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

But a day later, Syria rejected the proposal, claiming Netanyahu was skirting a primary issue: the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Netanyahu said in Amman that Israel had made the proposal to Syria Friday last week via American intermediaries.

He would not elaborate on details of the proposal, but there have been numerous reports that Israel was offering a "Lebanon First" arrangement, under which it would pull its troops out of southern Lebanon in exchange for the dismantling of Hezbollah units operating there.

In the absence of agreement on larger issues — particularly the longstanding Syrian demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights as a precondition for achieving a full peace — Israeli officials have indicated that a Lebanon First agreement could be a good starting point for building mutual trust before tackling more difficult issues.

As he has often stated since becoming premier, Netanyahu said Monday that Israel had no territorial claims on southern Lebanon, where, he said, "there has been a steady escalation of violence."

As if to underscore his point, there were reports that day that Hezbollah gunmen attacked an Israeli outpost in southern Lebanon, wounding two soldiers.

And Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed and two others slightly wounded in a Hezbollah attack on the same Israel Defense Force outpost in southern Lebanon.

For all the optimism expressed by Netanyahu and Hussein, it appeared clear by Tuesday that Damascus was not interested in the Lebanon First approach.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa told the Cabinet that Netanyahu was refusing to base the peace process on the principle of land-for-peace.

The Syrian government daily Tishreen was sharply dismissive of Netanyahu's proposal.

"This talk does not mean anything for the making of peace," the Damascus-based newspaper said. "It is mere nice words which are baseless."

In the wake of the Syrian rejection of Netanyahu's proposal, it remained unclear whether the two sides would return to the bargaining table anytime soon.

In Washington, D.C., a State Department spokesman said the United States was attempting to arrange a new round of negotiations, but had failed to get the two sides to agree to any resumption.

Netanyahu initially met with Hussein last week in London to discuss the Syrian negotiating track.

Within days, Hussein served as intermediary for the two sides when he spent five hours Saturday with Syrian President Hafez Assad to discuss ways of renewing the negotiations.

There were also reports that Netanyahu secretly met with a Syrian envoy last month in Jerusalem, but both Israel and Syria denied such contact.

The various meetings had raised hopes for some progress on the Israeli-Syrian track, but by Tuesday those expectations were deflated.

During his news briefing in Amman, Netanyahu also addressed the Palestinian negotiating track. He expressed his commitment to continuing the Palestinian peace process, "including solving the problem of Hebron," where Israeli troops are to be redeployed under the terms of the Interim Agreement.

Apparently attempting to build confidence on the Palestinian track, Netanyahu said Israel would allow an additional 5,000 Palestinian workers into Israel.

The move came as part of a recent easing of the closure imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks earlier this year. It means that some 30,000 Palestinians would now be allowed to work in the Jewish state.

Hussein voiced optimism about Netanyahu's commitment to the peace process. He also appeared to back the Israeli position that Jerusalem remain undivided.

"I'd like to say that it's never occurred to us at any point in time — in fact, since 1967 — that the city, in the context of peace, will be redivided," Hussein said.