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Syrian president shows faith in new Israeli leader

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- In his first reaction to the election of a new Israeli leader, Syrian President Hafez Assad described Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak as "strong and honest," a leading Arabic newspaper reported Wednesday.

Barak himself, in a companion interview published in the Al Hayat newspaper, said he saw Syria as the "cornerstone" of peace in the Middle East.The two statesmen used the interviews with British journalist Patrick Seale to exchange courtesies and send positive signals about their desire to restart Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations have not taken place since February 1996. The election of the hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May that year effectively froze the process, as Syria accused him of trying to ignore what the previous Israeli government had agreed to.

Assad indicated he was glad that Netanyahu had lost the Israeli elections last month, saying "working with that man was useless."

When Seale asked the Syrian president what he thought of the prospects for negotiations with a Barak-led government, Assad replied: "I feel confident now that there is a leader who can deliver if he chooses."

"I was following what he (Barak) has achieved, whether through his deeds or words. He seems to me a strong and honest man," Assad said. "Clearly, he wants to achieve peace with Syria. He is moving ahead at a careful, studied pace."

For his part, Barak told Seale that he intended to make the "peace of the brave with Syria."