U.S. envoy and Peres eye talks with Syria

JERUSALEM — U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross met with Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Sunday in a new attempt to find ways of reviving the long-stalled Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Downplaying expectations of an imminent breakthrough in the talks, the State Department said over the weekend that the meeting with Peres was intended simply to "touch base" with the new Israeli leader in the wake of the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns added that Peres first had to form his own government before "we can expect progress on the Israeli-Syrian track."

Ross' visit came amid reports that Syrian President Hafez Assad had not ruled out the possibility of a meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and a leading Israeli official during a regional economic conference scheduled to take place next month in Barcelona, Spain.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported the possibility of the meeting, citing remarks made by the head of the Syrian Foreign Ministry's political desk, who met last week in Brussels with the deputy director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Eitan Bentsur.

The two officials met while participating in preparatory talks for the Barcelona conference.

Assad broke off discussions between Israeli and Syrian military leaders, who last convened in Washington in late June.

The two sides have long been at loggerheads over the terms of a peace agreement.

Syria has demanded that Israel state its intention to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights as a precondition for peace.

Israel, countering that it will not accept any preconditions to negotiations, has offered a phased withdrawal from the Golan in return for the normalization of relations with Syria, including the exchange of ambassadors, open borders and free trade.

Another stumbling block has been the issue of security measures that would be put into place on the Golan in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal.

Israel has called for the establishment of a ground-based early warning system on the Golan.

Syria has countered that the move would represent an infringement on its territorial sovereignty, proposing instead a security system based on aerial reconnaissance.