‘Israel interested in resuming peace talks with Syria, returning territory ’

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sent messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad that he is interested in reopening peace talks and suggested Israel would return territory it captured 40 years ago, Israeli officials said Tuesday.Israel hopes a resumption of talks with Syria would moderate the bitter foe and win Damascus over in the regional effort to counter Iran’s fundamentalist influence, a foreign ministry official said.

With a US-sponsored Mideast peace conference two weeks away, Israel also wants a Syrian option open in case talks with the Palestinians fail, they said.

However, the officials said in the contacts with Olmert’s emissaries, Assad indicated he is not interested in renewing negotiations with Olmert, viewing the Israeli leader as too weak politically to implement a peace agreement. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has himself sent Israeli envoys based abroad to meet with Assad, the Israeli officials said. Olmert’s and Barak’s offices would not confirm that they have sent messages to Assad.

Olmert has said he wants Syria to participate in the Mideast conference, set for Annapolis, Maryland, but the United States has not agreed to Syria’s demand that the agenda include talks on the possibility of Israel returning the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel-Syria peace talks broke down in 2000 with an Israeli offer on the table to return the Golan Heights down to the international border, but Syria insisting on further territory that would give it control of the east bank of the Sea of Galilee.

There were also disagreements over the extent of peaceful relations. Israel hopes the opening of a Syrian track now could offset a possible breakdown of negotiations with the Palestinians, a foreign ministry official said.

Israel and the Palestinians have so far been unable to agree on a framework document to precede the Annapolis meeting, and Olmert has been playing down its prospects.

Olmert told parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee on Monday that he was “ready for peace with Syria and prepared to conduct negotiations with no preconditions – on condition they [the Syrians] abandon the ‘axis of evil’ and don’t support terror,” according to participants in the meeting.

Israel and the United States criticise Syria for hosting the headquarters of Palestinian groups and backing the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas. When asked by lawmaker Ran Cohen if he was holding talks with Syria, Olmert said “I don’t have to tell you about everything that I do”.

Cohen said Tuesday that Olmert gave lawmakers the clear impression that contacts with Syria were already under way.

“This is his first hint that he is holding some sort of negotiations with Syria,” said Cohen, a member of the dovish Meretz Party. “It was fairly clear to everyone sitting there that he is doing something and not saying anything about it.”

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