06/16/2009, 00.00
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As uncertainty reigns over the region, Damascus ready to return to centre stage

US envoy meets Assad. The latter congratulates Ahmadinejad but is open to indirect talks with Israel. Syria’s press focuses on the US’s peace-making role. Israel is ready for direct talks as Netanyahu’s popularity improves.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Some movement appears be underway in the decade-old struggle to find peace in the Middle East, at least in relation to Syria. But given events in Tehran and Syrian President Assad’s unpredictability, whatever happens has to be taken with a grain of salt. In fact if history is any indication, predicting anything in this region is nearly impossible as recent events have shown.

On Sunday for example Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered his ‘Two-State’ speech, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. The Americans and the Europeans responded by saying that it was a step in the right direction. Among Arabs it was received as an attempt to torpedo the peace process.

On Monday, US President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell was in Damascus. Once seen as foes of Syria now the Americans are getting the royal treatment, treated as peace-makers. At the same time the Syrians have announced that they are ready for indirect talks with Israel, which in turn is saying that it is ready for direct talks with Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis, but with no conditions attached.

At present Syria does seem ready to get back in the peace-making business after it suspended Turkish-mediated talks with Israel following Israeli action in Gaza in December.

For the Americans “Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” US envoy Mitchell said after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (pictured).

On Saturday Assad congratulated his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election victory, saying he hoped the two allies could forge stronger ties, but also said that he was prepared to renew indirect peace talks with Israel.

Echoing such renewed interest in the peace process Syria’s tightly controlled press went after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accusing him of trying to sink the peace process.

“Netanyahu's speech torpedoes all peace efforts,” Al-Watan wrote in its report of Sunday's speech.

Similarly, whilst the “United States [. . .] is working for peace,” in the current situation it “can either go back and maintain the status quo marked by crisis, which we hope doesn't happen, or assume their responsibilities in pushing Israel to talk seriously in order to bring about peace and security,” wrote another Syrian newspaper, Ath-Thawra.

Expressing what many Arab ‘moderates’ would like to see, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called on the international community to “put pressure” on Israel to accept previous peace initiatives.

In Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Tuesday that Israel is ready to hold direct peace talks without preconditions with the Palestinians, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

Lieberman’s statement, which fails to meet Arab demands, came after he met the 27 EU foreign ministers.

The European Union welcomed Netanyahu’s “initial step” but said that it was not enough.

By contrast, as Israeli daily Haaretz pointed out even if “U.S. President Barack Obama has reservations,’ and “the Arabs are protesting and the Europeans are doubtful,” the Israeli public has instead responded positively to Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech.

A public opinion poll conducted right after the speech registered a 16 points jump, up from 28 per cent a month ago, to 44 per cent on Monday. (PD)

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