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Israel tells U.S. envoy firm on terms for Syria talks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel played down prospects for renewed peace negotiations with Syria on Wednesday after hosting a top adviser to U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Fred Hoff met several Israeli officials during a four-day visit that local media speculated could be part of the Obama administration’s bid to explore fresh engagement with Damascus.

The Israelis repeated their long-standing offer to hold direct talks with Syria if it distances itself from Iran and armed Islamist groups arrayed against the Jewish state in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

“These things have to end if, indeed, Syria is seeking peace,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who met Hoff, told Israel Radio when asked about what had been discussed.

Syria has ruled out the Israeli demand, and insists that any new negotiations include assurances that it will recover the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Israel, which annexed the Golan in a move not recognised internationally, calls this an unacceptable precondition. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has played down prospects for negotiations, saying he saw no partner in right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took power in March.

The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv had no immediate comment on Hoff’s visit.

Hoff, who advises Mitchell on Syria and Lebanon, authored an academic proposal earlier this year for solving the Golan dispute by turning much of the strategic plateau into a nature reserve that would be accessible to both Israelis and Syrians.

But an Israeli political source said there was no detailed discussion of such initiatives during Hoff’s visit.

“The idea that Hoff brought maps, in hope of implementing something, is false,” the source said, characterising the U.S. envoy’s meetings as “sounding-out sessions.”

Israel and Syria last held direct talks in 2000, in the United States, but failed to reach agreement on the future of the Golan. They held indirect talks, with Turkish mediation, last year but Syria froze contacts to protest against Israel’s December-January war in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are also stalled. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that Israel freeze Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank before talks can resume.

Israel has been trying to work out a compromise on the settlement issue with Washington linked with progress towards normalisation of relations with Arab countries in the region.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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