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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 15:52 GMT
Israel offers peace talks to Syria
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer (left) with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt
Egypt is a channel to the Arab world for Israel
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer has said his country is willing to sit down for peace talks with Syria if there are no preconditions

He made the announcement after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which were expected to focus on the latest violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syria is one of Israel's most bitter foes
Mr Ben Eliezer said he had asked Mr Mubarak to pass on the proposal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria is one of Israel's most bitter enemies in the Arab world and the two countries came close to war during the recent conflict in Lebanon.

"I delivered a message through him [Hosni Mubarak] to the Syrian president to tell him that Israel is ready to sit at the negotiating table," Mr Ben Eliezer told reporters at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The Israeli minister called on Syria to stop assisting Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, who still occasionally attack Israel from across the border.

Syria has said it is prepared to resume negotiations over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights at the point where they broke down in the US in January 2000.

Egyptian peace bid

Mr Ben Eliezer, who met the Egyptian leader at a hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, is the most senior Israeli official to visit Egypt since Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in July 2001.

Relations have been strained by the current uprising in the Palestinian territories but Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said ahead of the meeting that "all political means possible" were needed to halt the fighting.

US peace plan
Cooling-off period of six weeks
Freeze on new Jewish settlements
Return to talks table

According to the Egyptian press, the two men were due to discuss existing US peace proposals: the Tenet cease-fire plan and the Mitchell blueprint for returning to negotiations.

The BBC's Barbara Plett says Egypt appears to be resuming its role as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Egypt is heavily dependent on US aid, Cairo is also said to be angry at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's recent handling of the situation.

The minister's 'agenda'

The Israeli defence minister is known as a "hawk" in Ariel Sharon's cabinet.

His office earlier confined itself to saying that the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh would cover "questions of regional interest".

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon plays down talk of rivalry with his defence minister

Our correspondent says that, as leader of Israel's Labour Party, Mr Ben Eliezer is a rival to Mr Sharon.

This has led some Israeli commentators to suggest that the Egyptian president is looking for an alternative to Mr Sharon's hard-line approach.

They have also suggested that the Labour leader is beginning to prepare his own political platform to challenge the prime minister.

But Mr Sharon's office has played down these reports, saying the minister is carrying a message that Israel wants peace and stability and would like to see Mr Mubarak pressure Yasser Arafat to end the violence.

On his way to Egypt, the defence minister said he would also assure the Egyptians that Israel did not intend to topple the Palestinian Authority.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israel revives contacts with Egypt
30 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israeli agents hit by suicide bomber
27 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country Profile: Egypt
17 Dec 01 | Media reports
Egypt plans TV broadcasts for Israel
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