Amy Teibel
The Associated Press
February 6, 2011 - 1:00am

A high-ranking official in the previous Israeli government said Sunday that Israel and Syria were close to resuming direct peace talks in late 2008, and that the Syrians signaled readiness to ease past demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from captured lands.

Turkish-mediated talks between the two sides were to have progressed to direct talks in December 2008. But Israel launched a war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip that month, and the talks were derailed, said the former official in the government of Ehud Olmert.

"Had we started direct negotiations, I believe that we would have concluded them within a month or two," he said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political and diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the talks.

Ankara mediated several rounds of indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008. Neither side provided any sign of significant headway until Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated in an interview to the Wall Street Journal last week that significant progress had been made toward setting an agenda for direct talks.

The Israeli official confirmed Assad's assessment.

"The fact that a meeting was to be scheduled for direct talks I think proves that it (the negotiating agenda) was accepted by them and by us," he said.

As its price for peace, Syria wants Israel to return land captured from it in the 1967 Mideast war. This includes the Golan Heights — a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel — and small areas of land that adjoin the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main water source.

Direct negotiations in 2000 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke down over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal. Israel insisted on keeping disputed land around the Sea of Galilee.

The border the Syrians proposed in the Ankara-mediated talks offered Israel more land between the water and the frontier, the Olmert government official said, while refusing to give details.

"There was more space, enough to have an Israeli road between the water and the border line," he said. He said Israel would have accepted this border.

In return for the pullout, the former official said, Israel wanted full peace, open borders, diplomatic and commercial relations with Syria. It also wanted Syria to halt military ties with Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel did not, however, insist that Syria sever its ties with Iran, he said.

These and other points were accepted by both sides as subjects for negotiation, the official said.

In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Assad said the two sides "were very close to defining the reference that would be given to the U.S. and tell them 'this is your means to manage the next negotiation,' the direct negotiations I mean. But it all went in a different way."

The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not known to be conducting official contacts with Syria.

Netanyahu does not consider Turkey, now a strident critic of Israel, to be an honest broker, and recent Israeli legislation makes it tougher to withdraw from the Golan. Syria has denounced the law as "proof" the Israeli government doesn't want peace.

Many Israelis are reluctant to return the Golan for fear the Syrians could use the strategic plateau to attack Israel. The area has also become a vibrant tourism area.


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