Clinton, Syrian FM discuss Israel-Syria talks


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the Syrian foreign minister and discussed reviving Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The U.S. secretary of state met with Walid Muallem on the sidelines of the launching of this year’s U.N. General Assembly, the signature annual event that brings together foreign ministers otherwise not inclined to meet one on one.

"The secretary affirmed our objective of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which includes the Syrian track," the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said in a conference call with reporters. "Foreign Minister Muallem was very interested in pursuing that, and there was a pledge that we would develop some ideas going forward on how to proceed."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not interested in reviving talks with Syria where they left off under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Those talks, mediated by Turkey, operated under the assumption that Israel would return the entire Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, should a comprehensive peace be secured.

Netanyahu says he will only restart talks with no preconditions and has suggested that he is not willing to return the entire Golan.

Syria’s official news agency, Sana, described the Clinton-Muallem meeting as "very constructive."

The Obama administration has kept in place most of the sanctions imposed on Syria by President George W. Bush, but is seeking to return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus. That nomination is held up in the Senate.

Crowley said Clinton and Muallem discussed the issues that led to the imposition of the sanctions, including alleged Syrian interference in Lebanon and Iraq, and Damascus’ backing for terrorist groups that target Israel.

"The peace process and Lebanon were the two most significant dimensions of the secretary’s discussion with the foreign minister," he said. "And suffice it to say that we do have concerns about Syria’s activities inside Lebanon and its relationship with Hezbollah."

Crowley said there would be follow-up, but would not provide details.

"We will follow up with the Syrians on how to best proceed in developing the Syrian-Israeli track," he said.

Clinton while in New York also spoke by phone with Netanyahu to address difficulties already afflicting recently revived direct talks with the Palestinian Authority.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has interrupted the talks because Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month moratorium on settlement building. Abbas also has said, however, that the issue will not end the talks.

Crowley said George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s senior envoy to the region, was set Monday evening to visit the region and meet with the leaders in an attempt to get past the impasse before Wednesday evening, the eve of Shemini Atzeret, a Jewish holiday.

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