‘Tel Aviv exploiting pressure on Damascus’

DAMASCUS (AP) — Syria accused Israel on Tuesday of seeking to exploit intense US-led pressure on Damascus to reject calls for peace talks over the occupied Golan Heights.
“Israeli officials are trying to exploit the wave of political, media and psychological pressure on Syria in order to express in a rude manner their hostile attitudes towards Syria,” Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah said in a statement carried by SANA, the official news agency.

He was reacting to a statement attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday in which he said that he would not negotiate with Syria on the return of the Israeli-occupied strategic high ground.

“I don’t intend to enter negotiations with Syria because I don’t want to withdraw from the Golan Heights,” Sharon told parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee in Jerusalem, according to lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, head of the committee.

In past talks, Syria has demanded the return of the territory, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed.

Israel should not extend its hand to Syria when the nation’s leaders are isolated internationally, Steinitz said Monday.

“No one has the illusion that Israel will end the occupation [of the Golan] willingly,” Dakhlallah said.

“It has always geared its attitudes and policies toward the continued occupation of Arab territories as long as it could do that.” He said Israeli leaders’ repeated refusal to withdraw from the Golan “will not change the fact that the Golan is a Syrian Arab territory.” “The Syrians uphold their right to recover and liberate the Golan until the last inch,” Dakhlallah said.

Syrian-Israeli peace talks broke down in January 2000 after Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and all land captured in 1967. Israel refused to make such a pledge and insisted that the issues of security arrangements and normalisation be spelled out first.

Israel has rebuffed Syria’s recent overtures to restart the talks, saying Damascus must first end its support for anti-Israeli Palestinian groups based in Syria.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been under heavy pressure since the UN Security Council unanimously demanded last month that Syria cooperate fully with a UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, warning of further measures if it fails to do so.

A UN report last month implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in a massive bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in Beirut on February 14.

Syria, which denies any role in the killing, has rejected the findings as lacking evidence.

Washington also has accused Syria of letting foreign extremists cross its border to join the insurgency in Iraq and supporting Palestinian groups. Syria denies that.

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