Published January 15, 2004
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Israel's president went on Arab television Wednesday and pressed Syrian leader Bashar Assad (search) to accept his invitation to visit Israel and launch new peace talks between the longtime enemies.
In the interview with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV channel, Moshe Katsav urged Assad to end support for Palestinian and Lebanese militants to show he was sincere in being a recent comment that he is interested in resuming peace talks.
"The test now is a test for the Syrian president," Katsav said from Jerusalem. "He is required to prove his serious intentions and that he wants peace."
Katsav spoke in Hebrew with an Arabic translation voice-over in the interview with Al-Jazeera (search), which is one of the few Arab stations that interviews Israeli officials.
The Israeli president repeated his invitation to Assad to visit, saying Israel would "welcome him." Damascus dismissed his offer when it was first made on Monday.
In Damascus, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otari dismissed Katsav's invitation to Assad as an "advertising invitation."
"There is no hope of achieving a just and comprehensive peace with this Zionist [Israeli] administration," Otari said Wednesday.
In 2000, Syrian-Israeli talks collapsed in a dispute over the amount of Golan Heights (search) land to be returned to Damascus and security guarantees to be given Israel.
In a New York Times interview last month, Assad said he was interested in restarting peace negotiations, but Syrian officials have said the talks should begin where they broke off in 2000. Israel has rejected any preconditions for reopening the talks.
A U.S. official in Jerusalem said that while Assad's words were important, concrete steps are needed -- shutting down offices of Palestinian militant groups, moving the Hezbollah militia away from southern Lebanon and preventing wanted Iraqis from fleeing to its territory.
"What they should be doing is shutting down the headquarters of terrorist groups in Damascus -- really shutting them down," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And they should be shutting down training bases in Syria."
The official denied Israeli media reports that the United States encouraged Israel's initially cool response to Assad's overtures. "We do not see a reason why doors should be shut," the official said.
Syria and Israel -- foes who remain technically at war -- have fought three major conflicts: in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Israel seized Syria's strategic Golan Heights in 1967, but since 1973 their shared border has mostly been calm.
Katsav told Al-Jazeera that Syrian support for Hezbollah and Palestinian groups -- as well as "anti-Semitic remarks he has not rescinded" -- "raise doubts about the sincerity of his intentions."
Damascus said it shut down offices of Palestinian militant groups last year, but the groups are believed to continue operating with a low profile.
On Palestinian-Israeli relations, Katsav said no Israeli government will be able to have serious talks with the Palestinians "as long as terrorism and planning for attacks continue."
Scores of Israelis have died in homicide attacks, most of them blamed on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. On Wednesday, a Palestinian homicide bomber blew herself up at the major crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, killing at least four Israelis and wounding seven other people.
In the same interview, Katsav praised Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's decision to abandon the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, saying he "deserves appreciation."
Asked about reports of secret talks between Israel and Libya, Katsav said: "What happens in secret should remain a secret." He would not elaborate.