DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria's foreign minister said Monday his country was ready to resume peace talks with Israel and he urged the Jewish state's government to heed calls from within the country for renewed negotiations.
"We appreciate the Israeli voices who call for the resumption of the peace process with Syria," said Walid al-Moallem, urging the Israeli government to respond and resume talks.
If Israel agrees, "it will find Syria ready to resume peace negotiations," the foreign minister said during a news conference in Damascus with his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Store.
Store said he had "frank and direct discussions" with Syrian President Bashar Assad during his one-day stop in Syria. He urged Syria and Israel to reach an overall regional agreement in accordance with U.N. resolutions.
He also described the latest violence in the Gaza Strip as "an extremely urgent and dramatic situation," referring to an Israeli offensive that has killed more than 50 people in six days. Store called on Palestinian militants to stop firing rockets at Israel, and for Israelis to cease their "disproportionate military response."
Israeli-Syrian peace talks broke down in 2000, with Syria demanding assurances that Israel would return the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel wanted modifications to the pre-1967 border and insisted that the issues of security and normalization be spelled out first.
Israel now says it will only talk peace with Syria once Damascus stops supporting groups hostile to the Jewish state.
"Israel wants peace with all our neighbors including Syria," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev on Monday, responding to the Syrian comments.
"But it is very difficult to take the Syrian government seriously as a partner in peace when that government has strategic alliances with the enemies of peace, including Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad."
Al-Moallem's call for talks on Monday came as an Israeli newspaper reported that the army was preparing for the possibility that either Syria or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon could start another war with Israel by next summer.
The Haaretz daily reported that top army brass believe that either Syria or Hezbollah — or possibly both together — might attack Israel with backing from Iran.
The Syrian minister dismissed the report.
"Using force is not solving the issue ... We hope that in 2007 we will have a peace process to settle the issue," al-Moallem said.