Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Syria's Assad says Israel peace possible within 2 yrs

By Crispian Balmer

PARIS, July 13 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said it could take between six months to two years to reach a peace agreement with Israel if the two sides, who have held indirect negotiations, agreed to face-to-face talks.

"Signing a peace accord with Israel ... it's a question that requires six months to two years maximum if both parties are serious in engaging direct talks," Assad said on Sunday, speaking through a translator on France 2 television.

The Syrian president, who is in France for a summit of EU and Mediterranean leaders, also repeated a previous assertion that he did not believe direct talks could start until U.S. President George W. Bush left office next January.

It was not immediately clear if the clock for his timeframe for a possible deal would only start once the face-to-face talks began and Israel urged Syria on Sunday not to drag its feet.

"We are serious about peace. It would be a pity to let the current opportunity fall by the wayside," a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said when asked about Assad's television interview.

He added that Olmert had conveyed a message to the Syrian leader earlier in the day through Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and said now was the time to move.

Assad and Olmert were in Paris for a summit of EU and Mediterranean leaders, sitting together in the same room for the first time in their countries' history. But Assad said he had not shaken hands with the Israeli prime minister.

"No. We are engaged in indirect talks. We are not looking for symbols. We are trying to create a new reality; peace instead of war," he told France 2. "Once peace is signed then symbols take on a great importance," he added.

Syria launched indirect peace talks with Israel this year under Turkish mediation over the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967.

The last direct talks between Israel and Syria under U.S. sponsorship broke down eight years ago and Washington has been reluctant to re-engage with Damascus because of its role in Lebanon and close ties with Iran.

Assad, whose visit to Paris marked the end of years of isolation from the West, said that anyone who wanted peace in the Middle East needed to talk to Syria.

He also said he remained committed to modernising his country and opening it up to democracy.

"We keep moving forward, but with very clear, precise steps. There probably won't be any swift moves. Our goal is stability," he said. "Impulsive and badly thought out moves could lead to consequences that would be hard to resolve in the future." (Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Dan Williams; Editing by Charles Dick)


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