DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria rejected Israel's demand that Damascus cut its ties with Iran and Arab militant groups as a condition for a peace agreement, a state newspaper said Saturday.
The announcement comes even as Syrian ally Hamas, a sworn foe of the Jewish state, cast doubt on the Israeli government's ability to even deliver on a peace agreement due to the weakness of its prime minister.
The remarks underline the difficulties facing the negotiations between Israel and Syria, restarted Wednesday after an eight year hiatus. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had said Thursday Syria would have to stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah and cut ties with Iran if any agreement were to happen.
Saturday's editorial in Tishrin, which reflects official policy, said that Israel could not lay down conditions ahead of negotiations.
"Damascus does not want preconditions, that would put the cart before the horse ... It does not bargain over its relations with other countries and people," the editorial stated.
"It goes without saying that impossible conditions cannot facilitate the work of negotiators," added the editorial which likened it to "putting stakes in the wheels" of the peace process.
As if to underline Israel's concerns, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was in Tehran Saturday, meeting with Iranian officials. While he was careful not to criticize the decision of Syria to restart negotiations, he cast doubt on their chances for success.
"(Israel) is maneuvering and playing with all the (negotiating) tracks — it's a well known game and besides, Olmert's weakness will not allow him to take this step," Mashaal said.
An investigation into Olmert over corruption allegations have raised doubts about his ability to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians by a year-end target or pursue recently confirmed peace talks with Syria.
Outspoken Likud member Tzachi Hanegbi on Saturday called for an early election in Israel to vote on any peace deal negotiated between Syria and Israel. Hanegbi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that his party did not run on a platform of peace with Syria, and said elections would show whether Israelis really wanted a deal or not.
Hanegbi also underlined the absolute necessity of Syria cutting ties with militant groups and Iran.
"It's understood that Syria wants to have the Golan Heights, and Israel wants a total (Syrian) disassociation from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. It's a red line, to ensure our security...and to prevent a surprise attack."
Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war, and many Israelis see it as a valuable buffer against attack. Today the Golan Heights are home to 18,000 Israelis who run thriving wine and tourism industries. Olmert himself vacationed there last month.
According to the poll, only 19 percent of Israelis are willing to cede the entire Golan Heights, down from 32 percent a month ago.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have failed in the past. The last round of talks collapsed in 2000 because of a disagreement over a narrow strip of land along the Sea of Galilee that Israel wanted to keep to preserve its water rights.
The nations have fought three wars, their forces have clashed in Lebanon, and more recently, Syria has given support to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas.