Prime minister denies report that stance on Syria changed

JERUSALEM, Aug. 13 (JTA) — Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are denying a newspaper report that the premier has agreed to a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for concessions on security arrangements from Syria. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported Wednesday that Netanyahu had recently conveyed a message to Syrian President Hafez Assad in which he proposed a formula for determining the extent of the withdrawal. Netanyahu spokesman Shai Bazak denied the report. “Our position remains unchanged. We are ready to enter negotiations with the Syrians without prior conditions. The prime minister’s view on the importance of the Golan Heights is known,” Bazak told Israel Radio. The previous Labor government had agreed in principle to a withdrawal from the Golan that would be commensurate with the extent of peace Syria was willing to forge with the Jewish state. But Netanyahu has stated that he would not honor any verbal agreements that may have been given by the former Labor government regarding a Golan withdrawal. Negotiations between Israel and Syria were halted in March 1996 after Assad failed to condemn a series of suicide bombings that Hamas terrorists launched against Israeli targets. Since taking office last year, Netanyahu has said he is willing to renew negotiations without any prior conditions. But Israel and Syria have been unable to agree on the terms of the starting point for such talks. Meanwhile, the latest proposal attributed to Netanyahu drew criticism from opposition leader Ehud Barak. “He is making it a matter of fact that we are ready to give up our demands without any content or depth of peace which should be part of any equation,” he told Israel Radio. Barak, in turn, was sharply criticized by coalition members this week for sending a message of his own to Assad via a delegation of Israeli Arabs currently visiting Damascus. Barak defended his actions, saying he had conveyed his message via respectable Labor Knesset members that were part of the delegation. Members of the visiting Israeli Arab delegation said that in their meeting with Assad, the Syrian leader had expressed interest in peace as well as concern about the present situation. Assad said he hoped there would not be war with Israel, but that he had not ruled out any options, according to members of the delegation.

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