JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister said Monday that his country would be ready to talk peace with Syria if Damascus were serious about doing so — a sharp departure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's go-slow approach to peacemaking while the Middle East is in turmoil.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel must look beyond the risks arising from the changes sweeping the Arab world, where longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt have been toppled and the 42-year dictatorship of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is under assault from opposition forces.
Barak acknowledged that the revolts might have negative implications for Israel, because it is not clear what form of government Egyptians will choose and whether ousted President Hosni Mubarak's successor will be as committed to the three-decade-old peace treaty with the Jewish state as he was. Egypt's current military rulers, who took the over from Mubarak on Feb. 11, have promised to abide by the peace treaty.
Still, Barak said, Israel must see the changes as an opportunity to move peacemaking forward — including possible talks with Syria.
"The Syrians are signaling, in more than one way, that they are willing to consider an accord," he said. "I think that we have to explore every opportunity. ... If it turns out that the Syrian president really means it and is seriously exploring the possibility, with the understanding that peace is a mutual thing, then he will find us ready to talk."
Barak mentioned a newspaper interview last month in which Syrian President Bashar Assad said the two sides were close to agreement in an agenda for direct talks.
Assad has not spoken about the issue in public in recent days. But Israeli newspapers have reported that Assad has expressed interest in restarting peace talks in recent discussions with visiting American senators.
Syria, which borders northeast Israel, is one of the Jewish states' most bitter enemies, through its alliance with Iran and by offering support to anti-Israel militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
In exchange for peace, Syria wants Israel to return land captured in the 1967 Mideast war — the strategic Golan Heights and small areas of land that adjoin the Sea of Galilee, a main water source for Israel.
The prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, said Barak was speaking on behalf of the government when he signaled to Syria that Israel was prepared to conduct serious negotiations.
Israel and Syria held several rounds of Turkish-mediated negotiations in 2008. They broke down after Israel invaded Gaza in 2009 to stop rocket attacks.
Netanyahu has said little positive about the crumbling of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, instead warning that Mubarak's departure could usher in a fundamentalist Islamic regime. He also has appeared cool to the idea of moving quickly to reach a peace accord with the Palestinians at a time of such great regional uncertainty.
In Brussels on Monday, Israel's deputy foreign minister called on Egypt to ban the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's best-organized opposition group — from running candidates in elections.
The group has been outlawed since 1954, but was allowed to run candidates in elections as independents. With Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood expects to play a significant role in Egyptian politics.
It insists it would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but openly supports armed resistance against the Jewish state.
The Israeli official, Danny Ayalon, said Israel would object to the Brotherhood being part of a future government "on the merit of their agenda ... and their policies." He was speaking during a visit to European Union headquarters.
Egypt's ruling military has promised elections after a constitutional reform process.
Barak told Israel Radio that he does not see a radical Islamist movement arising in Egypt at this point or any immediate military threat to Israel coming from Egypt.