April 24, 2008 - 5:51pm§ion=0&article=109274&d=24&m=4&y=2008

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told Turkey that Israel is willing to give back Syria’s Golan Heights in return for peace with the Arab state, a Syrian Cabinet minister said yesterday.

“Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria,” Expatriates Minister Buthaina Shaaban told Al Jazeera television. She said the message about the Heights occupied by Israel since 1967 was made through Turkey.

Syria’s peace talks with Israel collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights. International attempts to persuade Syria and Israel to resume talks foundered after the two sides attached conditions to a return to the negotiating table.

Syria wants Israel to commit to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and prefers the United States, Israel’s chief ally, to oversee the talks. Israel wants Syria’s ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas to be on the agenda.

Media reports in Damascus said Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan relayed the Israeli offer to President Bashar Assad. “Erdogan telephoned Assad on Tuesday to tell him that Olmert had told him Israel was ready to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria,” Al-Watan newspaper said.

A Syrian news website carried a similar report.

A source close to the Turkish prime minister denied that Erdogan had delivered the message to Assad.

Importance Played Down

Diplomats in the Syrian capital played down the importance of the reports. They said Syria and Israel also had to agree on how to tackle Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel accuses Syria of being the main supply route for Hezbollah.

Acknowledging talks through a third party, Assad told a closed meeting of the ruling Baath Party on Sunday that an Israeli commitment to withdraw fully from the Golan had to be a basis for talks but any direct negotiations would be public.

“The president made it clear that third party efforts were fine as long as a framework is agreed upon and Israel commits to a full withdrawal,” a source familiar with the annual meeting of the powerful Baath Party central committee said.

“Syria will not be stung again. Israel committed to a complete pullout before and then tried to get out of it. Any one-on-one talks have to be public,” the source said.


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