Israel: no objections to Syria at Mideast meeting

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JERUSALEM, Sept 24 (Reuters) Israel does not object to Syria taking part in a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood despite heightened tensions between the long-time foes, Israeli officials said today.

Any US invitation to Syria to attend the conference could be complicated by a reported Israeli air strike on September 6 which some US officials have linked to apparent Israeli suspicions of secret nuclear cooperation between Damascus and North Korea.

''The United States is the one that will issue the invitations and that will define the criteria for the invitations, and we have no problem with whomever they decide to invite,'' said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Another senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said: ''We have no objections to Syria participating as long as the talks stay only on the Palestinian track.'' Olmert has sought to defuse tensions with Damascus over the September 6 incident, declaring that he respects Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and was prepared to hold peace talks with him with no preconditions.

Olmert told a closed-door session of an Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday that he believed that neither Israel nor Syria wanted a conflict, Israel Radio reported.

The United States signalled on Sunday it would invite Syria and other Arab states to the Middle East conference, expected to be held in mid-to-late November, but it suggested Damascus must renounce violence and genuinely seek an end to the conflict.

It is unclear if Syria would agree to attend the conference if Washington imposed conditions on participants.

TEST Israeli officials and Western diplomats said Syria's participation in the conference would be a way to test its willingness to break with militant groups including Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip by force in June and rejected the US-sponsored conference.

''It would legitimise the entire effort'' to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and isolate Hamas, the senior Israeli official said.

Damascus serves as a base for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and provides support to the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel last year.

Syria has expressed a willingness in the past to break with militant groups as part of a broader peace deal, according to published accounts by the lead U.S. negotiator at the time.

Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation and Damascus has said it could retaliate for what it called a violation of its territory on September 6.

In the months leading up to the reported Israeli raid, Olmert sought assurances from Damascus that Israeli-Syrian peace talks would result in Syria severing ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

Assad told Syria's parliament in July that before any peace talks Israel must first commit itself to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised internationally.

US President George W Bush has shown little public enthusiasm for an Israeli-Syrian peace track, casting doubt on the chances of a breakthrough in the near future. Negotiations in the United States between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000.

REUTERS JK KN1734

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