Israel's premier willing to reopen Syria talks


JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that Israel was prepared to renew negotiations with Syria if Damascus stopped supporting militant groups fighting Israel.

Sharon has come under pressure to explore prospects for talks after Syrian President Bashar Assad called for a resumption of negotiations last month. Negotiations broke down in 2000.

"Syria should stop the help and support of terrorist organizations," Sharon said. "If that will happen, I believe that Israel will be very glad to negotiate."

Sharon accused Syria of aiding the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and of acting in concert with Iran to promote attacks on Israel. He said Syria's proposal to renew peace talks was made under pressure after it was suspected of being a conduit for Arab militants fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Bush administration has pressed Syria to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq, to stop supporting Hezbollah and to shut down the operations of Palestinian radical groups based in Damascus.

"Israel is ready and willing to negotiate once Syria ... will stop the help to terror," Sharon said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has pushed for a positive response to Syria's overture, arguing that it would demonstrate Israel's readiness for peace.

Cabinet ministers from the centrist Shinui party urged Sharon to take a serious look at the Syrian call to resume talks.

Assad said last month that the talks should resume where they left off, when the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a nearly complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Sharon has insisted that the talks start anew.

On the conflict with the Palestinians, Sharon reiterated that he would "relocate" some Jewish settlements and pull back the army to a new security line in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if there was no progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. He also repeated that some settlements would have to be dismantled.

Sharon spoke as more than 100,000 settlers and supporters rallied in Tel Aviv against the uprooting of any of their communities in the West Bank and Gaza. Protesters held up banners that said: "Uprooting settlements is a victory for terror" and "Uprooting settlements tears the nation apart."

Speakers included hard-line members of Sharon's Cabinet. Housing Minister Effi Eitam, from the pro-settlement National Religious Party, warned that his party would leave the governing coalition if Sharon moved ahead with his plan.

New violence broke out yesterday in the West Bank. A Palestinian suicide bomber was killed in the village of Jinsafut when he apparently detonated his explosives prematurely.

In a separate incident, soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian teen-ager during a clash with stone-throwers in the village of Beita, near Nablus. Reports of his death conflicted.

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