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Assad Kin: Israel Peace Door Open

April 17, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ The door to peace with Israel is still open and time has not run out for Syria and Israel to reach a settlement, the son of Syrian President Hafez Assad was quoted Monday as saying.

However, Bashar Assad _ who reportedly is being groomed to succeed his father _ said Damascus will not give up its demand that Israel return all of the Golan Heights, including a small patch of land along the Sea of Galilee, according to Al Wasat, a London-based weekly.

Syria gained the land in raids in the early 1950s, but the Israelis regard it as theirs.

``The issue of land is an issue of sovereignty and dignity,″ Bashar told the Arabic-language magazine. ``Syria is not ready to offer gifts of this kind. This is the leadership’s stand.″

Bashar’s remarks come at a low point in the Mideast peace process. Talks between Israel and Syria broke down in January over Israel’s refusal to give a prior commitment to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

President Clinton met with Assad in Geneva last month in an unsuccessful effort to revive the negotiations.

Bashar said the pessimism that followed the Geneva summit was unwarranted.

``The peace process has not stopped, and the door remains open as long as efforts are continuing,″ Bashar said, according to Al Wasat. ``Time has not run out.″

In an interview with Israeli television on Monday, Barak said: ``We did not close the door, but the opening as I see it is very narrow.″

``There is nothing that could force Assad or the Syrian government to make peace. I would only sign on a peace that will strengthen the security of Israel,″ he said.

Meanwhile, Assad’s biographer, Patrick Seale, appealed in an open letter to Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make peace. His letter was published Monday in Al Wasat’s sister daily, Al Hayat.

Seale, who is close to Assad and is believed to act as a messenger between Israel and Syria, wrote that the Israelis need reassurance that making peace with Syria is ``an acceptable adventure″ and asked Assad to send the Israelis more signals of his good intentions.

``They do not trust Syria,″ Seale wrote. ``Before surrendering such a valuable site like the Golan Heights they need to be convinced of Syria’s peaceful intentions.″

Seale also wrote that Barak must remember that he accepted a pledge made by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and later by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres to withdraw from the entire Golan.

``Assad is ready to meet you half way on other peace elements _ water, security, normalization and the withdrawal schedule _ but not on land,″ Seale wrote.

He appealed to Barak to ``seize the opportunity offered by history to renegotiate with Syria on the same basis that was accepted by two Israeli elected governments.″

Seale has traveled to Israel and Syria recently. He has proposed in an Al-Hayat article that the Sea of Galilee remain under Israeli sovereignty, but that the border be drawn along the water line, giving Syria control of the northeastern shore.

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