April 27, 2008 / 5:34 PM / 11 years ago

Israel open to meeting with Syrians: officials

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel would be open to participating in a senior-level meeting with the Syrians brokered by Turkey to test the waters for renewed peace negotiations, Israeli officials said on Sunday.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands and welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting in Damascus, April 26, 2008. REUTERS/Arij Nakad

Such a preliminary meeting between Israeli and Syrian representatives would be the next step in mediation efforts by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who held talks over the weekend with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the officials said.

That meeting could lay the groundwork for more formal talks in the future, Israeli officials said, though Erdogan could face an uphill task bringing the two sides to formal negotiations before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office next January.

The Bush administration has been cool to renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which collapsed in 2000 without resolving the fate of the Golan Heights, Israeli officials said.

“If such an invitation comes from Turkey, I can’t see any reason why Israel would not attend,” said a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“They would accept,” another Israeli official said of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.

Syria says it received word from Turkey that Israel would be willing to give back the Golan in return for peace with the Arab state. Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

Syrian officials said on Saturday that Damascus would cooperate with Turkey in its mediation efforts but that the Jewish state must also make an effort towards a deal.

Olmert has neither confirmed nor denied that such an offer was conveyed to Damascus, and a spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on whether the prime minister would agree to send a representative to a senior-level meeting with the Syrians.

“Israel desires peace with Syria,” Regev said. “As you know, messages have been sent. The Syrians are aware of Israel’s expectations as to the talks and we are aware of the Syrian expectations as to the process.”

While Assad sought out Olmert’s stance on the Golan, Israeli officials said the prime minister has been seeking assurances that peace talks would lead Syria to sever ties with Iran and anti-Israel groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip.

A senior Israeli official said it was unclear whether Olmert had received any assurances from Assad to that effect. “The question of what price they’re willing to pay remains an open question,” the official said.

Olmert, whose U.S.-backed peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have shown little sign of progress, has sought to shore up his public standing, damaged by Israel’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Renewing the Syrian track could be a major political gamble for Olmert, already under fire from Israel’s right wing parties over negotiations with the Palestinians.

Previous Israeli prime ministers have conveyed similar messages to Syria about returning the Golan for peace. But at issue is the scope of any Israeli withdrawal.

Erdogan has said that mediation efforts would start at a low level and move up the chain if successful. Turkey, which is a NATO member, has close ties with Israel.

But without full U.S. backing, diplomats doubt talks will go anywhere. Last week, Washington released intelligence alleging Syria had built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help before an Israeli air strike destroyed the facility last September.

In remarks published in a Qatari newspaper on Sunday, Assad said the site was not part of a nuclear weapons program, but was a military facility under construction.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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