Israel has told Syria it is willing to trade land for peace and is waiting to
hear whether President Bashar al-Assad would cut ties with Iran and hostile
guerrilla groups in return, Israeli officials said on Friday.
Israeli army soldiers train at
the Golan Heights in this picture, handed out by the Israeli Defence
Forces (IDF) press office on April 18, 2007. An Israeli newspaper said on
Friday that Israel has told Syria it is prepared to withdraw from the
Golan Heights in return for lasting peace, adding to growing signals that
Israel is looking to resume negotiations. [Reuters]
One said Syrian officials had so far indicated a willingness to conduct
discreet contacts that might lead to a resumption of formal peace talks after a
seven-year hiatus. In two weeks, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to meet
President George W. Bush, who would play a crucial role in any such process.
Two days after Olmert confirmed Israel had sent conciliatory messages to
Damascus, Israeli media widely reported a leak to a newspaper that quoted a
senior diplomat saying Syria had been reminded that Israel was ready to discuss
returning the Golan Heights, captured 40 years ago this week, if peace talks
A former Israeli diplomat who has taken part in efforts to revive dialogue
said Olmert -- deeply unpopular after last year's inconclusive war with
Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon -- was preparing his voters for possible
concessions to Syria in a process that will probably need strong U.S. support to
A senior serving Israeli official told Reuters that Syrian officials appeared
open to discreet dialogue and Israel was now trying to determine what
concessions Damascus might be willing to make, notably in severing alliances
with Israel's enemies in Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant movements like
"Nobody knows the answer," said the official, who spoke on condition of
anonymity and has been involved in the discussions.
"We don't know what is the Syrian definition of peace -- if Syria will really
position itself with the U.S. and its Western allies or stay with Iran and
Hezbollah and Hamas?
"There are no preconditions for the beginning of the negotiations. But
(Assad) will have to send an indication."
He and a second Israeli official confirmed that Turkey, which maintains good
relations with both Syria and Israel, had helped promote dialogue, resuming a
role that diplomatic sources have said it played in behind-the-scenes
discussions in 2004.
A senior aide to Olmert was in Turkey recently, the two officials said. A
spokesman for Olmert declined comment.
Israeli spokesmen also declined to be drawn on Friday's widely splashed
report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that Olmert had passed Assad the
message through Turkish and German channels that Israel was ready to give up the
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev noted, however, that Israel has long
been willing to negotiate on the future of the strategic territory, captured in
the Six Day War of June 1967.
There was no immediate comment from Damascus.
Polls show about half of Israeli voters would be ready to give back some of
the Golan but few would give up all of the land. That poses a challenge to a
leader as unpopular as Olmert.
Some analysts believe, however, that with little prospect of progress on
peace with divided Palestinians or on the Lebanese border, talks with Syria
could bolster the premier's standing.
Olmert is also considering his response to a renewed peace initiative from
the Arab League. Syria's fellow Arabs, like the United States and Israel, seem
keen to loosen Assad's ties to non-Arab Iran, whose nuclear program and
influence over fellow Shi'ites now running Arab Iraq have caused them concern.
Alon Liel, a former top Israeli diplomat who has taken part in discreet
contacts with Syrians for some years, said he thought the basis of a deal
between Israel and Syria was taking shape but that the key to any accord lay in
"I think the deal is pretty much closed. But you can't move forward on the
'small' deal with Israel without the 'big' deal with the U.S.," said Liel, who
new heads the Israel-Syria Peace Society, dedicated to promoting a settlement.
Assad, Liel said, would not give up his alliance with Iran without an
assurance of aid and other benefits from the United States and other Western
powers -- similar to those that Egypt secured by making peace with Israel in
Israeli officials have said that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's
meeting with the Syrian foreign minister a month ago showed a softening in
Washington's attitude to Syria that indicated Bush would not oppose Israeli
Assad has publicly expressed interest in resuming talks with Israel that
stalled seven years ago over the extent of an Israeli pullback from the Golan
Heights, but he has also hinted Syria could resort to force if it deemed
diplomacy a dead end.