Sharon Firm on Golan; Israeli Ignores Assad Overture

Article excerpt

Byline: Abraham Rabinovich, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

JERUSALEM - Reports of a softening in Syrian President Bashar Assad's negotiating position have done little to sway Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who shows scant interest in descending from the Golan Heights in return for peace.

Israeli news reports say Mr. Assad no longer is demanding a return to the borders existing before the 1967 Six Day War, an issue that stymied talks four years ago between his father, President Hafez Assad, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, who met with the Syrian president on Saturday, was quoted as saying that Mr. Assad also is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel from scratch, dropping his insistence that they pick up from the point where talks broke off in 2000.

Syrian officials denied that report, which appeared in the daily Ha'aretz.

"It's impossible that the Syrian president said that he was ready to negotiate from scratch," Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Syrian parliament, said in Damascus. "I confirm that this report is inaccurate."

In proposing renewed negotiations last month, Mr. Assad had stipulated that they resume from where they had left off, because 80 percent of the issues had been resolved.

Mr. Barak reportedly had agreed to abandon the entire Golan Heights but balked at returning a narrow strip at the foot of the heights, which would have restored Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee - Israel's main source of fresh water.

Mr. Sharon initially ignored Mr. Assad's bid in a newspaper interview to resume negotiations and asked his ministers to refrain from public statements about it.

Mr. Sharon was reported to have said that the nation was not prepared to give up the Golan, even for peace. …