JERUSALEM – Syrian leader Bashar Assad must step down, Israel's president declared Tuesday, sending his message to Israel's neighbor at an unprecedented news conference with Arab media.
Israel's government has largely kept quiet as anti-government protests swept the Arab world in recent months. While some Israeli officials have predicted the Assad regime will fall, President Shimon Peres' comments marked the first time an Israeli leader has openly called for the end of the Syrian regime.
Peres only has a ceremonial role as Israel's president, but is considered Israel's elder statesman and, as a Nobel peace laureate, is well known beyond Israel's borders.
Peres alleged that Assad's forces killed some 2,000 civilians and imprisoned tens of thousands during the four-month-old uprising. "Assad must go," Peres said. "The sooner he will leave, the better it will be for his people," Peres said.
Syrian rights groups have put the death toll at more than 1,600.
Peres also praised the protesters. "It is easy to go out and demonstrate, but when they shoot at you? It is amazing," the president said. "Their courage and firm stance are honorable."
He suggested that regime change could help pave the way for an eventual peace treaty between Israel and Syria.
"Those who seek peace will prevail," he said.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, but their border has been mostly quiet during the four-decade rule of the Assad family. Some in Israel are uneasy about the prospects of instability in Syria if Bashar Assad is deposed.
As president, Peres has largely refrained from voicing political opinions, making Tuesday's comments all the more unusual. The setting was also unprecedented, with Peres speaking to about 30 correspondents from leading Arab news organizations, including some from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Peres spoke just days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's interview on Al-Arabiya TV, his first with an Arab media outlet since taking office two years ago. In the interview, Netanyahu took a more diplomatic line toward Syria, saying the country's young people deserve a better future but only Syrians could determine who their leader should be.
The interviews have highlighted Israel's efforts at engaging its neighbors as Mideast upheaval continues, and as the Palestinians seek statehood recognition at the U.N. this September.
Peres claimed Israel is "closer than ever" to peace with the Palestinians and insisted gaps between the two sides could be bridged before the U.N. vote in September.
Peace talks have been deadlocked since 2008 over issues like borders, Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements expansion on war-won lands. In the 1990s, Peres won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestnians.
Peres has hosted Arab journalists before, but this was his first official news conference aimed at a wide range of Arabic-language outlets.
Peres aides tried to ensure a smooth entry procedures for the journalists, following complaints of humiliating security examinations at Netanyahu events. Cameraman Haitham Omari was made to drop his pants as part of a lengthy security check before taping Netanyahu's interview with Al-Arabiyah TV last week.
On Tuesday, the security check for the Peres news conference took just a few minutes.