This is a piece by Yoav Stern, recipient of an NCF Media Award last year, from today's Haaretz
Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Sunday that he hopes to achieve peace with Israel, but cautioned that a Middle East deadlocked in conflict could end up in war.
Asked what he thought of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to wiped off the map, Assad said Syria wanted peace with Israel, not to see it destroyed.
"But my personal opinion, my hopes for peace, could one day change. And if this hope disappears, then war may really be the only solution," Assad told German magazine Der Spiegel.
In response to Assad's statement, the Prime Minister's Office reiterated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's stance that "the conditions have not yet ripened" for negotiations with Syria, which he called the major instigator of terrorism in the region.
Earlier Sunday, Meretz leader Yossi Beilin reportedly criticized Olmert for missing a genuine opportunity to engage in peace talks with the Syrians.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz also commented on Assad's statement, saying "the State of Israel is prepared for any threat and will be prepared to respond to any provocation on Syria's part."
Peretz also said that the Syrian president's militaristic statements are highly inconsistent with calls for peace. Peretz said if the Syrian president wants to prove he has true intentions for peace, he should stop backing (Palestinian terrorist) Khaled Meshal and halt arms shipments to Hezbollah.
The defense minister said Israel aims for peace with its neighbors, whenever the conditions are right for it.
Regarding Israel's recent war with Hezbollah, Assad said it would be impossible to prevent weapons from reaching the militant organization due to its strong public support.
Enforcing an arms embargo against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon is one of the main tasks of a UN peacekeeping force which is assembling in Lebanon and along its coast.
"As long as public support for Hezbollah is as high as it today... then this is 'mission impossible'. The majority sees resistance against Israel as legitimate. I advise the Europeans - don't waste your time. Get to the root of the problem."
Relations between the United States and Syria have long been strained as Washington has designated Syria as a "state sponsor of terrorism" because of its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups.
Beilin slams refusal to explore peace opportunity
Army Radio on Sunday quoted Yossi Beilin as saying that the government's refusal to explore a reported overture by Syria represented "diplomatic dereliction of duty" and blindness on the part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Beilin was responding to news reports that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem had said "The war in Lebanon has created a genuine opportunity for peace and for solving the problems of the region."
Beilin was also quoted as saying that Israel's refusal to examine repeated statements from Damascus represented diplomatic dereliction of duty.
"If Olmert continues to tread the path of blindness and arrogance, this will lead us into another armed confrontation," Beilin was quoted as telling the radio.
Mualem was quoted at the weekend as saying that although an opportunity had been created to deal with the Middle East conflict, he believed that the international community would fail to take advantage of the opportunity, as a result of Israeli pressure and American hegemony.
"I believe that the opportunity will not be exploited and will wither, and the dangers in the area will increase," Mualem was quoted as saying.
Mualem also reiterated Syria's opposition to the deployment of an international force on the Syrian-Lebanese border, saying that Damascus would oversee the frontier, long used as a route to channel arms to Hezbollah.
U.S., EU policies brought Damascus attack
In his interview, Assad also blamed the United States and its Middle East policies for a recent failed attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus.
Four Syrians tried to blow up the embassy on September 12, but the plot failed after Syrian guards killed three of the assailants in a shootout. The fourth man later died of his wounds.
"This seems to have been the background of the attack, a reaction to America's policy in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan," Assad was quoted by Der Spiegel weekly as saying.
Syria's 40-year-old president was asked why the United States should be considered at fault for an attack that Assad said appeared to have been carried out by Syrians.
"Because they contribute to hopelessness here, to silencing dialogue between cultures," he said.
Assad said data recovered from the computers of the militants who carried out the attacks on the U.S. embassy and information gathered in their environments indicated that they were isolated young men, Al Qaida sympathizers from the suburbs of Damascus who called Osama bin Laden "the lion of Islam".
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Syria and the United States intensified their cooperation on security issues and "together saved many American lives", Assad said.
"Then the Iraq war emerged and America began to make many mistakes," he said.
Assad said he had warned the United States that it would win the war in Iraq but would then sink into a quagmire.
"It's turned out worse than I expected," he said.