Israel, offering Golan, awaits Syria proposals

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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.

A Syrian woman takes pictures of the village of Majdal Shams, part of the Golan Heights, at the Syrian-Israel borderline in a 2005 photo. 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. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

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 resume.

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 succeed.

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 Hamas.

“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.

Related Coverage

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 Golan Heights.

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 Washington.

“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 1979.

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 peace moves.

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.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch)

Writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Samia Nakhoul