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Israeli cabinet split over Assad overtures

Dec. 17, 2006 at 8:11 AM

JERUSALEM, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Israel's cabinet was divided Sunday over Syrian President Bashar Assad's call to return to the negotiating table.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad urged a renewal of peace negotiations with Israel, saying Damascus would cooperate with Washington to resolve regional issues.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem added an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks, Israel's YNet News reported.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet he stood by his stance that, before opening negotiations, Israel expected Syria to renounce terrorism and stop supporting "extremist influences," such as Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

In contrast, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called on the cabinet to hold an emergency discussion about Assad's and Moallem's comments.

He said talking with Syria could improve the countries' relations and weaken Syria's ties to Hezbollah.

"Every agreement comes with a price tag, and in the Syrian context the price is clear," Peretz said. "The question is whether it is strategically important for us to disconnect Syria from the radical axis and prevent it from cooperating with Hezbollah."

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