JERUSALEM, Jan. 27 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week responded to an opposition request to explain to the Knesset his government’s approach to resuming negotiations with Syria. Addressing the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel was making an effort to renew the stalled talks — but that it could not force Syrian President Hafez Assad to do anything he did not want to. Negotiations between the two countries were suspended last March, after Assad refused to condemn a wave of Hamas suicide bombings that targeted Israel, claiming 59 innocent lives. In recent months, Syria has demanded that the negotiations resume from where they left off, including the verbal assurances of the previous Labor government to consider withdrawals on the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Israel captured the heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. Netanyahu has said both sides can raise whatever demands they want at the negotiations, but they must come to the table without any preconditions. On Monday, the premier said the two sides were now “looking for a bridging formula between these two opposing positions.” Netanyahu said he believed that it was possible to reach such a formula and that Israel and the United States were working on one. “I believe that with goodwill from both sides, and help from the United States, we can reach a formula that will allow the renewal of direct dialogue between us and Syria.” Last week, Foreign Minister David Levy confirmed an Israeli newspaper report that he had been in touch with his counterpart, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, via an unnamed senior European official. On Monday, after addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Levy said that he, too, hoped that a formula for renewing negotiations with Damascus could be reached soon. Netanyahu appeared before the Knesset after 40 members of the opposition signed a petition asking him to appear before Parliament to clarify his government’s position regarding the long-stalled talks with Syria. Under Israeli law, a minister must appear before the Knesset to address a specific issue if a minimum of 40 Knesset members sign a petition calling on him or her to do so. Shai Bazak, Netanyahu’s media adviser, said Monday that the petition was not necessary, adding that Netanyahu was always available to address the Knesset when requested to do so.
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