Israel's Olmert Seeks to Ease Tensions with Syria
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli lawmakers Monday that he does not want friction with Syria, as his spokesperson spread the word that Israel has no problem sitting down at a Mideast peace conference with its enemy.
Speaking to a closed meeting of Israeli lawmakers, Olmert said Israel has been monitoring Syrian troop movements in recent weeks. The prime minister went on to say that his country is not interested in violent conflict with Syria and expressed confidence that recent tensions between the nations will subside.
"We're not interested in friction, and I think the Syrians aren't either," Olmert said, according to a meeting participant. "I think the tensions in the area will gradually subside." The participant spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Olmert has been trying to ease fear of a possible outbreak in fighting after a reported Israeli airstrike in Syria on Sept. 6. Israel has not publicly acknowledged the incursion, but tensions between Israel and Syria have heightened since the alleged airstrike.
Meanwhile, Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Monday that Israel supports the U.S. decision to invite Syria to President Bush's Mideast planned peace conference.
"We have no problem with whomever the United States decides to include at the international meeting," she said.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that key Arab nations — including Syria — would be invited to the peace conference this fall. The U.S. hopes the conference will provide the foundation for peace talks meant to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Earlier this month, Syria accused Israel of invading its airspace and dropping unspecified munitions.
Israel has imposed a news blackout on the matter, but Mideast defense officials have told The Associated Press an Israeli airstrike and commando forces on the ground targeted a Syrian technology installation.
Foreign news reports have cited officials and experts as saying the attack targeted either arms meant for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon or some sort of nonconventional weapon, perhaps a joint Syrian-North Korean nuclear project. Syria has denied both, and North Korea has denied a nuclear link with Damascus.
However, North Korean media outlets have reported that there was an attack.
"Israeli warplanes' intrusion into the territorial airspace of Syria and bomb-dropping are an outright violation of Syria's sovereignty and a grave crime that destroys regional peace and security," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper as saying on Monday.
Israel has repeatedly criticized Syria for its support of radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon. Syria also is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But last week, Olmert called for the reopening of peace talks between the two adversaries without conditions.
Past negotiations broke down seven years ago over Syria's demand for the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel offered to go back to the international border, but Syria insisted on also controlling another small strip of territory — the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, which Syria captured during the 1948-49 war that accompanied Israel's creation. Talks also faltered over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.
Syrian officials have not responded to news of the pending invitation.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press
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