Sharon: Israel Ready to Negotiate With Syria, Calls Abbas 'Partner'

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that he was prepared to resume peace talks with Syria and praised the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, as a 'partner' for peace.

The hard-line Sharon told Israel TV that he had turned down recent overtures from Syrian President Bashar Assad to resume peace talks because he had felt the offer was a Syrian ploy to ease U.S. pressure on Damascus.

Sharon said, however, he now would be prepared to resume peace negotiations, as long as Syria did not set conditions. Syria has said it would only resume talks at the point where they last broke off three years ago. At that time, Israeli had proposed concessions on the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 War.

Sharon said he had met Abbas "many times, including in this house." The interview was conducted at Sharon's farm in southern Israel. He said Abbas was a Palestinian leader who had concluded that violence against Israel was fruitless and said he could be "a partner" for peace talks. Abbas has called violent Palestinian acts a mistake.

Israel demands that all violence cease before negotiations resume, but Sharon has said that a meeting between himself and Abbas is being planned.

In an interview Tuesday, Sharon set a new condition for progress on peace talks, saying that the Palestinians must first renounce their demand for the right for refugees from the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948 to return to their original homes along with their descendants -- about 4 million people. Abbas turned down the condition, saying the issue must be negotiated.

The right-of-return issue was to have been taken up in the last stages of the so-called "Road map" peace plan that has been handed to both Israel and the Palestinians by the Quartet of interested parties -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

The Israeli-Syria talks broke down with the two sides relatively close to agreement over Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Syria insisted on a foothold on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the issue could not be resolved.

Sharon said the two sides must come to the table with no conditions. "We will bring our demands, and they will bring their demands, and we will discuss the issues," he said.

Sharon would not discuss whether he would be prepared to return all or part of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. "I think it is a mistake, before negotiations, to say what we will do," he said.

He confirmed that he had received messages from Assad in recent weeks, offering to resume talks, but decided to wait "a few weeks." He noted that Syria is under intense U.S. pressure over charges that it harbored members of the deposed Iraqi regime and has large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and Assad may have been using the offer as a way to placate the Americans.

In the interview, Sharon said he was prepared to talk peace with all Arab countries on the same basis. "I am prepared to conduct negotiations with all Arab countries with no prior conditions," he said. "The two sides must sit across the table from each other."

Also Thursday, Israel killed a senior Hamas fugitive in a missile attack in northern Gaza, in a clear signal that it would not wait for Abbas to crackdown on militants.

The missile strike killed Iyad al-Baeck, 30, and was similar to dozens of others in 31 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence. It was carried out despite the coming arrival of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is trying to persuade both sides to take up an international peace plan.

In other violence, a Palestinian blew up a car bomb after crashing into an Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip, killing himself, the Israeli military said. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization, claimed responsibility in a call to The Associated Press. Three other Palestinians died in separate incidents.

Despite Sharon's television interview, the continuing violence weighed heavily against a quick start to the peacemaking efforts. Powell is due to arrive late Saturday for separate talks on Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the first push toward implementing the internationally backed road map peace plan, officials from both sides said.

The Israeli military said al-Baeck was an aide to Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh, killed in an Israeli air strike last summer. Al-Baeck was held responsible for 16 Hamas attacks that killed 19 Israelis.

Hamas threatened revenge. "The new crime will have severe reprisals," Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi said, hinting at a new round of violence just as peace efforts resume.

Sharon said he would not cease attacks on militants until they had been reined in by the Palestinian authority.