UN chief offers to help start Israel-Syria talks
( Reuters ) - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered on Monday to facilitate any future peace talks between Israel and Syria, which the United States has shunned.
Ban, was responding to comments by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week that he was "ready for direct talks" with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the occupied Golan Heights.
Facilitation, in diplomatic language, means helping the parties to get together rather than mediating.
"It is encouraging that Israel has expressed the willingness to talk with the Syrian president and all other regional players," Ban said told a news conference. "I would be happy to facilitate such peace initiatives."
In an interview with al-Arabiya television last Tuesday, Olmert said, "You (Assad) have been saying that you want the negotiations through the Americans. But they do not want to sit with you. I am ready to sit with you and talk about peace not war."
But his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, two days later rejected talks, saying that Syria was supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement attacking Israel.
"Moreover, Damascus, which is still the regional center of support for terrorism, is today associated with Iran in a partnership which also constitutes a danger," Livni told the French newspaper, Le Nouvel Observateur, last Thursday.
Negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 without resolving the fate of the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in a move declared null by the United Nations Security Council.
Assad has repeatedly expressed interest in resuming talks with Israel through a third party.
Ban also said he had been working behind the scenes to free two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, seized by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid in July 2006, which sparked a war with Israel.
A third, Gilad Shalit, was captured in June by groups linked to the Palestinian Hamas.
"Because of the sensitivities involving the safe return of the Israeli soldiers, I have not said much about this issue, what I've been doing," Ban said. "In fact, I have been doing a lot through my facilitator to have the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah.
"And I have also spoken many times, on numerous occasions, to Palestinian leaders to free, release Corporal Shalit. These efforts will continue," Ban said.
A German intelligence agent is negotiating for the release of the Israelis, diplomats said, but no progress has been reported.